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 wasnt coercive and wasnt 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.