Christ and coercion

An exchange on BioLogos set me thinking – as they often do. On Ted Davis’s post about Polkinghorne  an atheist poster says:

I think it is interesting that the life of Jesus did not even convince most of his Judean contemporaries that he was divine. Most Jews who lived at the time, and most who came after, did not think he was the messiah. Why is that?

The redoubtable beaglelady replies:

Because he condescended and veiled his divinity for his earthly ministry. Additionally, he wasn’t coercive and wasn’t interested in putting on a show.

Our friend Eddie spotted, as I did, some buzzwords from the TE lexicon that remind one of the kind of stuff I’ve commented about in Howard van Till and his successors (start here). He begins to probe what she means by “coercive” and point to some of the nature miracles to question it.

On reflection I take beaglelady’s remark as valid apologetics, though her phrasing may well reflect an underlying theological bias. Nevertheless, as it stands this is a legitimate presentation of kenosis, in the sense of Philippians 2. The incarnation was condescension, and Jesus did veil his Godhead in human flesh. Equally, his ministry was characterised by humility as he took the form of a servant:

He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A brusied reed he will not break,
and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.

So personally I’d rather leave that thread to apologetics than go off on another tack – so I’ll do it here instead! The use of the word “coercive” in a context of kenosis, though not the poster’s primary concern, does lead one to ask how appropriate it is overall for the ministry of Jesus. For the standard train of reasoning for TE hyperkenoticism is something like this:

  • We know God only from the Incarnation of Christ
  • Christ emptied himself of divinity and became just like us, including ignorance and proneness to error.
  • Ergo this is God’s character, and he created the Universe in the same way, emptying himself control, and therefore eschewing creative coercion (aka final causation) and favouring freedom for all creation.

As I’ve frequently shown, the second term being thoroughly faulty, the third does not follow. But accepting the reasoning for the moment, it follows that if the Creator is non-coercive, Jesus too must have been, or he would have been acting outside the divine character. Conversely, if he was coercive the case for a God who refuses to be so is weakened, if not destroyed. So it’s worth a brief survey.

It is certainly true that Jesus usually did not force his will on others. I would explain that by his coming not to judge, but to seek and save, but that too certainly reflects the Father’s character. Yet we must modify that observation in three ways. Firstly, both his parables and many prophecies of his second coming teach his impending defeat of, and judgement on, his enemies. The “rod of iron” is for now witheld, but is promised for the restoration of justice in the end.

Secondly, particularly in John, there is a sovereignty that Jesus attributes to his ability to save (“You did not choose me, but I chose you”), which is definitely not coercive as such, but is nevertheless irresistible. And that shows how careful we need to be when throwing around words like “coercion” in the acts of God towards rational souls.

Thirdly, there is one incident that quite clearly shows his divine willingness to impose his will over men, and that is the cleansing of the temple. This occurs in all four gospels, and is clearly proclaimed as a prophetic act – not as a human error, though some undiscerning scholars have tried to present it as such. It is equally clearly just as coercive as driving people out with a whip usually is, or preventing people carrying goods through the temple must be. So that’s the human category.

Quite different are his dealings with the demonic. To be brief, he drives them out, he forbids them to speak, he consigns them to the abyss. He commands – they must obey. The most he allows is that the legion of demons might enter a herd of pigs and drive them to their death. Now remember, demons are part of the created order – and imposed order is prioritised over individual freedom, completely, by Jesus the Son. Even if one were to interpret demonic possession in some non-supernaturalistic way, it would not lessen the truth that Jesus imposes his will for good – he does not negotiate or suppress his divine authority.

Those pigs now – they’re a lesson about Christ’s dealing with nature, too. One is bound to sympathise with them as God’s creatures. But it remains the case that, though the demons asked permission to enter them, Jesus didn’t ask the pigs’ consent. Jesus’s nature miracles show this same coercion uniformly. The water did not show any desire to turn into wine – it did not have any option. The fig tree did not volunteer to be cursed. The infections he healed, like that of Peter’s mother, were not allowed their natural autonomy. Most dramatic of all, his calming of the storm is a positive rebuke: I’ve heard it described as the Aramaic equivalent of, “Get down, Boy!”

Now that raises all sorts of questions about what caused the weather to get out of control in the first place, if indeed it was truly out of control: the dog may have been boisterous, but it wasn’t off the lead. But what matters more here is what we learn about the character of Jesus, and therefore of the divine character – it is after all the same Christ who both creates and sustains nature. Why would he exercise sovereign authority over nature, spirits and men in the flesh (when he had “made himself nothing”), and then abstain from doing so in the management of creation as the divine Logos of God? It makes no sense.

Unless, of course, the whole doctrine of kenotic creation and divine non-coercion is a house built on sand.

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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7 Responses to Christ and coercion

  1. James Penman penman says:

    Hi Jon

    The rhetoric about coercion (God coercing His creatures) reveals, in my judgment, a massive failure to understand the bare basics of Augustinian, Thomist, & Reformed theology re providence.

    Coercion would mean God forcing us to do things against our will, so that we were in fact robbed of will, & reduced into will-less glove-puppets of God. Not exactly what Augustinians, Thomists, or Reformed have taught.

    The Augustinian-Thomist-Reformed tradition has said that God’s sovereignty operates with & through the human will. So the will remains fully real. We think, deliberate, choose, etc. How then does God work such that our willing always aligns with His overarching purposes? We don’t know. (Haters of mystery will have to get their hats & coats at this point.) But the fact remains. There is a mysterious alignment of divine sovereign purpose & human will. I’m sure you know all the scriptural texts about Judas etc. “The Son of Man goes as it has been DETERMINED, but woe unto that man by whom the Son is Man is betrayed” etc. Divine sovereignty & human responsibility sit side-by-side in many texts.

    Once you give up the idea that divine sovereignty entails coercion of the will, & embrace what our forefathers called the MYSTERY of providence, there’s no longer any theological need or rationale for inflating the autonomy of the creature & deflating the sovereignty of the Creator in order to obtain a creation in which creaturely freedom exists.

    Besides, attributing “will” to inanimate creation, even to many animate creatures, seems highly anthropomorphic. They don’t have a will to coerce.

    Do I make a modicum of sense?

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    penman –

    So you don’t believe molecules are people too??

  3. James Penman penman says:

    My campaign to have all molecules legally defined as persons didn’t get very far…

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    … and probably won’t until Process Theology is the state religion.

  5. James Penman penman says:

    May God deliver us from all state religions, including atheism. All I humbly ask of the state is to protect freedom of speech & debate. If I’ve offend anyone’s self-worth by asking for this, please don’t prosecute me.

    A lot of what I said in my opening post was my ventilation of weary frustration at debates going on over in BioLogos. One seems to get the same old questions being done to death. You know what I think of the process theology that’s endlessly paraded as “scientific theology” for evolution believers. You know I think the exact opposite: the only theology that could ever provide any framework for evolution is an Augustinian-Thomist-Reformed theology of God’s sovereignty.

    From the other side one gets endless salvos accusing ANY type of evolution believer as being a deist. “How did God work in the evolutionary process?” As though He didn’t work unless He punctuated it with miracles. As though He couldn’t guide it without perpetual supernatural interruptions. Precisely analogous to thinking that God cannot work in human history or guide human choices & actions without endless supernatural zaps. But God didn’t zap Judas into betraying the Lord. How God worked, how God “guided” those events, I have no idea, nor has any reputable historic theologian. But the events are part of His ordinary sovereignty.

    In case anyone new listens in, I should confess that I’m not the average kind of Evolutionary Creatonist, in that I don’t see any logical or biological necessity for common descent from a single ancestor (why not five original ancestral forms?), I don’t accept the omni-explanatory power of random mutation plus natural selection to account for biological change, & I insist on the historicity of Adam.

    With those caveats, I see divine sovereignty pulsating through the whole history of life as a teleological principle – the same as through the whole of human history to the present moment – without necessarily being able to explain the modus operandi of what seems a thoroughly attested biblical fact.

    Apologies for sounding off. Keep up the good work!

  6. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Keep sounding off, penman. The stuff needs saying repeatedly.

    The more I look at this, the more I think the faultlines run differently from what most people think. It’s not between Creationism, ID, and Theistic Evolution (as the principle contenders in this corner of the world of ideas), but between different concepts of God and reality that run through the middle of all of them.

    Essentially, as I said in a post somewhere, it’s between the sovereign God of the Bible of whom you speak, and an essentially man-centred cosmos in which God’s sovereignty is curtailed. (One might point to atheists who talk of man as just another species – molecules have rights too – but as others have argued, that’s just a variation on the theme since it becomes man, not God, who grants freedom and equality to bactteria, or whatever).

    Your points need making most strongly from within theistic evolution, because as a matter of observation TE seems closest to the wellspring of the Promethian view, probably because of its scientific Enlightenment influences… though it might be interesting to make some specific comments on Promethian ideas in Creationism and Intelligent Design.

    You never know, that might encourage a synthesis of the best of them that appeals to the undecided middle.

  7. James Penman penman says:

    I agree. One thing I’d like to do, within this, is to persuade fellow theocentrists to accept that there are some folk around who believe in a theocentric cosmos, confess a robust view of God’s sovereignty, & hold that the general theory of evolution is compatible with this. (The general theory: geological time, the universal linkage of life, the reality of descent with modification).

    I wouldn’t presume to set myself up as an authority on the truth of the general theory, but as a practising theologian & church historian, I’ll stick my neck out on its compatibility with scripture & the theological corpus of orthodox theology. That admission would free us from needless controversies & enable us to focus on two different substantive issues:

    1 The theological issue: the unorthodox nature of too much theologizing largely (I suspect) by theologically untrained scientists who may not realize how “far out” process-type theology is from anything remotely orthodox

    2 The scientific issue: what is the evidence for the general theory of evolution, what is the scientific status of concepts of design, how should we conceptualize mechanisms for biological change over time, how should we understand the origins of human consciousness, etc.

    There are healthy theological debates & scientific debates to had here. I think we could create more space for them if theocentric cosmologists could agree to a ceasefire on the infinitely distracting issue of “compatibility” as between evolution (general) & being theocentric.

    Footnote: my caveat about common descent from a single ancestor, I recollect, was actually shared by the Man Himself, who in Origin of Species wrote about life being breathed (maybe by a Creator!) originally into “few forms or one”.

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