A Design History of Theistic Evolution (#5 of 6)


Closely associated with “nature’s freedom” – whether causally or consequently is hard to say – is another commonplace of theistic evolution, divine kenosis. To Gray, Kingsley or Warfield, evolution showed the power and sovereignty of God in a new, more glorious, light. Today’s TEs are more concerned to argue for the absence of God’s power and sovereignty. Building on late 20th century theologies of suffering of those like Jurgen Moltmann, very many science and faith writers have taken the idea of kenosis and applied it to the whole creation.

The theological construction project goes like this this. Philippians 2.7 (frequently specifically quoted because it is the sole biblical reference) teaches that Christ emptied himself (Greek kenosis). This means he emptied himself of divinity and became a man. Therefore self-emptying is the very nature of Christ. We see God in Christ. Therefore self-emptying is the very nature of God. Therefore Creation was performed by self-emptying, which must mean God’s limiting his divine attributes by allowing autonomy to his creation. QED.

By a small further building extension, kenosis in relation to man means God’s allowing him complete autonomy of will, which requires God’s voluntarily (or in some versions ontologically) giving up his omniscience so as to leave the universe open to human choice: this is the substance of Open Theism, a fringe position in Evangelical Christianity, but a major one in theistic evolution. You’ll maybe notice that the nature of God in all this is mainly, it seems, not to act according to his own nature – a unique phenomenon! It may also be doubted if it is a possible, still less a desirable, phenomenon. In classical theology, God doesn’t know – he is knowledge, just as he is love, wisdom, power and so on. For him to “choose not to know” is for him to choose not to be what he is. More incoherence.

To build an entire theology of God, creation, and salvation on one verse is, perhaps, a little foolhardy. The danger is realised (though I hesitate to speak it aloud, given the reverence with which kenoticism is held) because it relies on a complete misinterpretation of the key text. I’ve written in some depth on that[xvii] , and could have added three or four further lines of argument. The central point, though is that Philippians refers not to the Son of God giving up his divine attributes and becoming an error-prone man at all, but to the man Jesus Christ, fully aware of his true divinity, choosing not to vaunt it but to “make himself nothing” (the usual meaning of kenosis in Paul) and submit to servanthood and death… as a result of which he immediately becomes exalted by God above all other names and every knee bows before him as Lord, to the glory of the Father. That half of the story is always omitted.

In truth, a case need not be made from Philippians for God’s ongoing exercise of sovereignty, which is actually essential to, and coterminous with, his love. It is the warp and woof of the whole Bible, as is his sole role in the act of creation, secondary causes notwithstanding. As a token example to check out, there are few titles amongst the many used for the Father or Jesus that do not carry connotations of sovereignty. Even “Christ” is a term of kingship.

Yet TEs, like other modern Evangelicals, have a rather ambiguous respect for Scripture. In part this may be because kenosis has now been used to undermine the trustworthiness of the Bible, and even the teaching of Christ: both, having emptied themselves of divinity, are to be seen as human and fallible. This conceit is not new – it’s just new to Evangelicalism. As old-fashioned liberal teaching it was bog standard. As Warfield said 120 years ago:

We are told that authority is limited by knowledge, and that Christ’s knowledge was limited to pure religion. We are told that even in matters of religion he accommodated Himself, in the form at least of His teachings, to the times in which he lived. Thus all “external authority” is gradually evaporated, and men are left to the sole authority each of his own spirit, whether under the name of reason or under the name of the Holy Spirit in the heart.

Does that not have a familiar ring?


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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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2 Responses to A Design History of Theistic Evolution (#5 of 6)

  1. Avatar photo GD says:


    One thing that does not seem to be discussed re kenosis (and I have recently become aware of this) is that the creation out of nothing, by God, seems to have been changed into nothingness as somehow also part of God (or perhaps God created nothingness first>) – I cannot make sense out of this, except to remember reading Being and Nothingness (the French version of Existentialism by Satre) in which the chap (an atheist) considers the concreteness of being and the transcendental consciousness (being of consciousness) accompanied by a being of nothingness. I will need to check the details, but I think a lot of this nonsense may be related to these fashionable existential views during the time of Moltmann.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    The idea I got re Moltmann was that in order for there to be something (creation) other than God, he has to (kenotically!) withdraw from being all in all to leave space in himself for that otherness. Maybe that’s what you’ve picked up too. If one thinks along those lines, it’s kind of logical to divide everything up (in this case God) into autonomous chunks.

    But this, of course, is an entirely speculative way of doing theology, apparently denying, for example, that Scripture that says “in him we live and move and have our being.” The usual creation picture in Scripture is of God’s generously enlarging what exists by creating beyond himself, not generously having to withdraw to divide the limited cake of existence differently. I’m sure philosphers could find all kinds of anomalies in the Biblical picture, but there can’t be many more presumptuous activities than mere humans working out the criteria by which God must run his existence, and ours.

    As you say, Moltmann’s Crucified God drew heavily on both existentialism and Marxism. What have they to do with Jerusalem? Or anything, much, in the 21st century?

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