…and kenotic model of creation

In my last post I examined “the incarnational model of Scripture” as an example of doing theology by buzz-word. Another example is the “kenotic model of creation”, though “kenosis”, like “incarnation”, is a word that gets, like sand, into everything – there’s a kenotic model of Scripture too, just as there’s an incarnational model of creation. It seems as if you give a theologian a yellow crayon, and come home to find he’s scribbled over everything with it.  The Amazon blurb for a John Polkinghorne book says:

The development of kenotic ideas was one of the most important advances in theological thinking in the late twentieth century.

So one supposes it must be especially well-founded. Robert J Russell, in Cosmology from Alpha to Omega presupposes a kenotic creation (involving a kenotic theodicy) but wants to move beyond “mere kenosis” to eshatology with a kenotic flavour.

“Mere kenosis”. Is that like “Mere Christianity”? Let’s look at it again, though I admit I’ve done so before . But it’s worth expanding since the idea itself has become fundamental to so much theology, at least in my field of interest of science-faith. Howard van Till’s process theology, as I’ve said before , is a key source, but it has also become a sine qua non for those who reject process theism like John Polkinghorne, and those who reject Polkinghorne’s open theism like Russell.

Ted Davis makes kenosis a central theme of his BioLogos treatment of theistic evolution. Whilst denying expertise on it, he welcomes it as putting Christ back into creation:

The most I can say with confidence is this: one of the most striking features of Protestant thought about nature, during and since the Scientific Revolution, is the degree to which it is not Christocentric in the sense we are now discussing. In much Protestant and Evangelical literature devoted to the topic of creation, one often looks in vain even for references to Jesus, let alone to Jesus as the suffering servant through whom the world was made,. Only in the latter part of the 20th century do I find a clear emphasis on the idea that nature is the creation of the God who put aside power and was crucified. If this understanding is correct, then I would say that it’s high time, and let’s get on with it!

But is the absence of Christological content in historical Protestant discussion of creation sufficient justification for accepting “kenotic creation”? Surely that depends whether it is actually true, and I would suggest, whether it is true biblically. Given that Ted’s series was entitled Science and the Bible (I’d quite forgotten that in the BioLogos discussion of theistic evolution!) he should agree. Whether someone with a non-Chalcedonian incarnational model of Scripture would is another matter – word studies are worthless unless the words are inspired.

In previous posts I’ve said that kenotic theology is based on a grossly over-extended application of Philippians 2.5-8. But that is over-generous. Careful examination of the passage shows that it’s based on a common  but false interpretation of those few verses. The misinterpretation is only of real importance once theologians start building their whole temple on it. There’s a useful study here which in turn utilises another useful study here. Some of the exegesis hinges on Greek vocabulary and grammar, but most on commonsense logic from the ordinary translations.

Kenotic theories depend on the idea that, at the incarnation, Christ emptied himself (εκενωσεω) of various attributes of divinity (his glory, omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence etc) in order to become man. But the passage doesn’t say that. V6, however translated, is about an active grasping (NIV) at equality with God, not a reluctance to give it up. Now the pre-existent Logos, in any case, could never be tempted in such a way or in any way, for God cannot be tempted (Jas 1.13). But a human being could be so tempted – if in fact he had, and knew he had, access to all the attributes of divinity because they were within his very nature as God. Indeed the gospels say Satan tempted Jesus in just this way: “If you are the Son of God, then …”

So the passage actually describes the man Jesus, retaining all the attributes of Godhead as in the catholic and othodox (small “c” and “o”) Chalcedonian Creed, refusing to claim his rightful glory, and instead “making himself nothing” or “making himself of no  reputation” (NIV and KJV respectively) by becoming a servant and submitting to death. He didn’t empty himself “of” anything, least of all his divinity – in Paul, all five uses of the verb mean “to make nothing”.

The ancient authors understood it this way, since they, unlike some, were decent Bible scholars. John Chrysostom comments extensively on this passage, using it to refute all the heresies diminishing Jesus’ united divinity and humanity:

If he who has it not in his power to snatch at another’s goods, continues in the possession of his own; should we praise him, think you, for his justice? I trow not, and why? The praise of free choice is taken away by the necessity. If he, who has it not in his power to usurp and be a king, remains a private citizen, should we praise him for his quietness? I trow not. The same rule applies here. For praise, O ye most senseless ones, is not given for abstaining from these things, but for the performance of good deeds…

In other words Jesus would show no virtue in not wanting to seize deity if he did not already have it, and the words refer to what he did as a man, not what he was. The whole divine emptying theme is an illusion. It’s easy to prove that from other passages. For example, in the last post I quoted Colossians 2.9: For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form. If that doesn’t clinch it, what about John 1.14: The Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of gace and truth? Or consider his stilling of the storm, when the disciples had to ask, “What manner of man is this?” Or the revealing of his glory at the marriage of Cana. Or his words in John 3.32: “The one who comes from heaven is above all.” Or the transfiguration, when his divine glory was not added, but revealed (1 John 1.-4).

The kenoticists, like most Promethean moderns, work from themselves to God. “Ah,” they say, “If Jesus were truly a man like us, he must have shown ignorance, error – even perhaps sin.” Implicitly, and I suspect sometimes explicitly, they pride themselves on “moving beyond Chalcedon.” (One has to note, incidentally, that another word for “moving beyond” is “transgressing”).

The best answer I’ve found to this comes in a post from a non-professional theologian named “Char”, from Saskatchewan, daring to move above her station to challenge “one of the most important developments in theological thinking”. She points out that Jesus wasn’t a man like us, but a perfect man unlike us (but, maybe, a man rather like Adam, if one can escape the liberal downgrade of Adam’s character and even existence). Her article, which is a must-read, also coins the apt term Kenotic Arians for this large, and influential, band of believers in a kenotic everything.

How Jesus could exist both as fully divine and fully human, against the claims of the kenoticists, is well covered in the Dan Musick article I linked at the top. He also covers the rather key point that if Jesus had really put aside his divine attributes, the Universe would have simply ceased to exist. What he doesn’t do, but I will in closing, is to say that the same consideration applies to the kenotic understanding of God in Open Theism.

The take home point: all the vast edifice of theology and philosophical approach to science based on a kenotic understanding of God is actually based on one wrongly interpreted verse of Scripture. It is purely human, invented, teaching, whatever the “orthodox” credentials of the theologians putting it forward. Make of that what you will for the state of Christianity today.

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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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3 Responses to …and kenotic model of creation

  1. Avatar photo GD says:


    This post is coming closer to the mark, and emphasises the importance of commencing with the Orthodox (both West and East) tradition. In addition to your comments (that Christ is understood as the Son of God, and the Son of Man), his sinless nature is critically important regarding the Law of God. Christ was without sin, (perfect in every sense) and yet the Law held its sway; Christ allowed himself to be subject to the law unto death, with total faith in God who resurrected him. Only a sinless person who could meet all the requirements of the Law, could provide forgiveness of sins. Paul shows that none of us can meet this criterion, and thus we die to the Law and live in Christ. It is now that we understand life, as we live it, and not simply some time in the future. John shows us that Christ came that we may have life in great abundance. We may contemplate what ‘emptying himself’ and ‘subjected to the law’, may mean.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks GD. Support is helpful when one is challenging “the most important advance in theological thinking” etc.

    I’m aware that this is negative criticism, and that Ted Davis is right to say that much Protestant discussion of creation/science has paid scant attention to Christ. The next project, I think, is to sketch out what Scripture actually does teach about the role of the Son both as Logos and Christ in creation. There’s no shortage of materials, though one might be less able to give an exhaustive explanation than the guys who feel free to make stuff up!

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