Wednesday, August 10

A Kenotic God: Theology of Love. Sacrifice and Relationship

*This is a featured article by guest author Jake Waehner, Graduate of Roberts Wesleyan College*

A theist in any scholarly circle is constantly subjected to the same questions. “How can human beings have free will if God is all-powerful and all-knowing?” “Why is there evil if God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good?” Classical theists have had answers to these questions for centuries, but the answers that they propose have not been convincing for many people. There is, then, a need for a fresh perspective regarding the answers to the difficult questions of theism. The traditionally held beliefs in classical theism have been held so tightly that no one has questioned them in mainstream Christianity for hundreds of years. There is a need to reexamine some of classical theism’s tenets, such as omnipotence, omniscience, and immutability.

Two schools of thought in Christian theology have taken a second look at some of these concepts, and as such, they have seen theology from a new point of view. One of these new theologies is process theology. Process theologians have largely rejected the concepts of omnipotence and immutability. As a result, God is able to be in a more intimate relationship with his creation. However, most other theologians believe that process theology goes too far in its out-of-the-box thinking and reject it as outside of Christian orthodoxy. The other new school of theology, openness theology, attempts to soften some of process theism’s less orthodox claims in order to bring it into the realm of mainstream Christian belief. As such, it retains the concepts of omnipotence, omniscience, and immutability and simply rethinks them to better answer the tough questions answered by theological skeptics. However, process theists hold that openness theologians have not gone far enough in their radical reordering of the ideas of classical theology, and as such is not a suitable compromise between the two opposite ends of the spectrum.

Process theology stems from the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and was developed into a theological system by thinkers such as Charles Hartshorne and John B. Cobb. Perhaps the most important idea in process thought, and the idea from which the thought system is named, is that process is a fundamental part of existence.1 As such, in order for something to be fundamentally real, it must be in process; to process theologians, this means that even God is growing and undergoing change just like the universe he created.2 In process theology, the implications of this idea are great. First, the classical theological position of immutability, the notion that in order for God to be perfect, he must be unchanging, is contradictory to process thought; this is the biggest mistake classical theologians make according to process theologians.3 In the same way, God cannot be omnipotent.4 God cannot use his power to force people to do what he wants them to do; God can only persuade people, not coerce them.5 However, as far as knowledge goes, the God conceived through process thought does not have to be entirely different from the God of classical theism.6 Panentheism is one of the most controversial aspects of process theology. Panentheism is the belief that God is in such a close relationship to the universe that the universe is in some way part of God, despite God’s transcendence of the world.7 This is another aspect of how outside-of-the-box process thought can become. All of these ideas are important to consider when developing a system of theology. Process theologians would argue that openness theologians, not to mention classical theologians, do not do enough to rethink the limiting theological ideas that have perhaps been holding Christian theology back for centuries.

Openness theology can be seen as a preliminary attempt to make process theology into something more easily acceptable in more traditional mainstream theological thought. While process theists change the concepts of immutability and omnipotence, openness theologians keep those concepts largely intact while focusing more on the concept of omniscience. While God is still omniscient in an openness view, God still does not know the future. This is because knowing the future is logically inconsistent due to the fact that the future is inherently indefinite.8 This still allows God to be in a deeper relationship with human beings and also gives humanity free will; God can have genuine relationships with people instead of having merely a creator-creation dynamic— it is much more than that.9 However, unlike the process theologian, an openness theologian believes that God can use both persuasive and coercive power, and sometimes God uses this coercive power.10 While process thinkers hold that openness theologians do not go far enough in their reconstruction of their concept of God, openness theologians might think that process thinkers are just as dogmatic and obstinate as classical theists.11 Additionally, openness theologians observe that everyday Christians go about their devotional lives in a way that conforms to openness theology’s ideas than they do to classical theology’s, even if they do believe in the classical model.12

While these two systems both have important insights to offer, and while both have moved away from the stagnant ideas of God put forward in classical theism, neither of them are satisfactory on their own.13 Both process and openness theology value God’s love over his power, and they both value what process philosophy has done to expand many people’s conception of God.14 Process theism may go too far in some aspects, with their outright rejection of omnipotence, as well as their general disagreement with the trinity and with creatio ex nihilo.15 However, openness theology does only the bare minimum to shake the burden of classical theism, and should be seen as the bar over which a dynamic and fresh theological system should aim.16 How can a theologian develop a system that takes the best elements of each of these schools of thought while also making it more palatable for the classical theologians? The most effective way to do this is through the doctrine of kenosis, in which God limits God’s own power to allow for deeper relationships, human free will, and the importance of love over power by emptying himself. A God who has the ability to use coercive power or to know the future, but chooses not to do so out of love for his creation makes for a God worthy of worship while solving the difficult questions of free will and the problem of evil. It still retains all of the major premises of process theism while maintaining the sense of infinity in classical theism, as well as the important retaining of human free will which is so important in openness theism. A “kenotic” God is a satisfactory synthesis of all of the best elements of all three of the conflicting theological systems.

Kenosis is the simplest and most theologically satisfying way to move process theology into the mainstream. If one starts with the classical idea that God is immutable, this makes God deficient in some way since he cannot enter into a deep relationship with a changing creation unless he too can change with it. The concept of perfection as being unchanging is logically inconsistent with the process idea that a being must be in process to be an actual being. This rejection of immutability opens the door for a kenotic God. In order for God to be perfect in love, he cannot force his creation to love him; this would not be a real loving relationship. It would be more Stockholm Syndrome than a healthy parental bond. One could even say that this form of love is akin to an abusive relationship, where one loves the other out of necessity, not out of choice. Even if a perfect being is omnipotent, love is a trait that is even better and more worthy of worship than power. God is made more worthy of love and worship if he chooses not to force us into relationship, especially if he has the ability to do so.17 This is even more so the case than in process theology, where God does not coerce humanity simply because he does not have the ability. In regard to the openness idea of omniscience, it becomes an act of love to not know the future when the future is actually knowable, but God empties himself of the ability to know it to give humanity more freedom. Even if there was no good biblical basis for a kenotic God, it would still be a tempting idea to adopt simply because it puts for a conception of God that is loving and sacrificial.

Fortunately, there is a well established biblical background for kenosis. The cornerstone
for the doctrine of kenosis comes from Philippians 2:5-8:18
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 
6 who, though he was in the form of God,   
did not regard equality with God   
as something to be exploited, 
7 but emptied himself,   
taking the form of a slave,   
being born in human likeness.   
And being found in human form, 
8 he humbled himself   
and became obedient to the point of death—   
even death on a cross. (NRSV)
This verse takes the form of an early church prayer or song, and is instrumental in the understanding of a kenotic God. Verse 7 especially is important, as it says that Christ emptied himself during the incarnation. Some scholars do not take this passage into account in regard to their Christology, but there should be no question that this passage is highly important when understanding the nature of Christ.19 It is a common exegetical conclusion that this passage implies that Jesus gave up his omnipotence and omniscience when he emptied himself.20 Many classical theists wish to hold tightly to those attributes of God, but if Jesus could give them up to become a servant, why could the fullness of the trinitarian God do the same? The point of the kenosis of Jesus was servanthood— he could not serve humanity if he had all of these divine attributes. It seems possible that God could not properly be in relation to the world is he retained these attributes at all. It would be the ultimate act of love to give up infinite knowledge and power so that God could grow and be in process with his creation. It is surely an unimaginable concept to a great deal of Christians, which only adds to its appeal as a conception of a God worthy of worship.

In a theological system, everything is interrelated; once one idea is put in place, all of the other dominos start to fall, so to speak. In this kenotic system, the first domino is divine love. God’s love is the cornerstone of who he is, and as the most important attribute, it dictates all of the others. The reason that God cannot be immutable is that God is first and foremost a loving being. In order for him to love to the fullest extent, “God experiences (i.e., takes into the divine experience) all the joys, pains, and sorrows of all created things at all times, and then offers back to them a leading toward the good.”21 God is affected by humanity in a fundamental way, and God uses all of this experience to help creation continue forward in process. However, he does not help through coercion; but his persuasive power is divinely good and is used to fulfill the divine purpose of actualization of the whole of creation.22 However, for God to know the future outside of the eventual fulfillment of his divine purpose would be limiting of human freedom; this means that God limits his own foreknowledge. God’s emphasis on love dictates the rest of God’s being to an incredible extent, and love permeates not only every aspect of God, but also every aspect of the universe that God has created, grown with, and loved so radically that it is like a part of him.

Photo credit to Leslie Ann Miranda
As the most important part of this theological system, love is the most important attribute of God. It is the driving force of God’s creativity and is the reason for the creation of the universe. The aim of every action of God is “the elicitation of the maximum richness of existence in every situation.”23 God is primarily concerned with the flourishing of his creation, and this is the reason that God chooses to go through all of the suffering that he goes through. God loves so much that there could very well be no limit to how much pain he will go through for humanity. Jesus emptied himself even further to become a servant on earth and eventually is tortured and killed in agony just to be raised again, all for the sake of humanity. All of this is part of an endless and constantly loving dialogue between creator and creation, parent and child, or even between two lovers; it is a constant invitation to join the divine in a future of flourishing and actualization.24

The foundational idea of process theology is that every actual being is in process and as such is growing and changing. This does not exclude God. Charles Hartshorne, one of the original process theologians, counted the idea that God must be unchangeable in order to be perfect as one of the great theological mistakes.25 If one starts with the assumption that beings must be in process to be real beings, then God must be in process. Additionally, it only makes God more loving if he can grow with his creation. Additionally, in the Old Testament, it seems that he could be convinced to change his mind, like with Abraham stopping him from destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, and that he regretted some of his earlier decisions, like in the flood narrative where he regretted creating humanity only for them to become wicked and sinful; God seems to suffer when humanity goes wrong.26 The rejection of the doctrine of divine immutability is a vital part of process theology and remains an important aspect of the kenotic system.

The process theologian’s rejection of omnipotence is another aspect of the kenotic God. However, unlike the process view in which God does not have the ability to use coercive power at all, the kenotic God simply chooses not to do so. This means that the process idea that God cannot perform miracles is rejected in this system.27 God can use miracles in special circumstances in which a greater use of power is the best way to elicit actualization in the universe. Especially in regards to the church, God can use coercive power in some circumstances. When people choose to allow the Holy Spirit to influence their lives in a more direct way, they invite God to use coercive power on them. However, since this is akin to a consensual relationship, the power God uses is not coercive, despite the fact that it is much a much more direct way of persuasion since there is no resistance on the part of the person. The Holy Spirit’s influence on the church is more coercive than process theologians would like it to be, since the church lives through the direct power of the Holy Spirit that dwells within them.28 Overall, the kenotic view of God is quite similar in its conclusions to process theology’s view, with the caveat of self-limitation as well as the allowance of miracles and more direct guidance of the willing. This answers many of the questions that a more traditional theist might have about process theology.

While there is no real necessary change to omniscience in Process theology, kenosis in relation to God’s knowledge can answer the question of whether or not humans have free will.29 Openness theologians argue that God is omniscient, but that the future is by nature unknowable.30 Another viewpoint, one that perhaps meshes with the system of kenosis, is that even if the future is indeed knowable, God does not know it. This is because if God were to observe what happens in the future, the universe would be locked into that future, and thus free will would not be able to exist. The solution to this is either the openness view that the future is indefinite and unknowable, or that God empties himself of the ability to see the future in order to give humanity, as well as the rest of creation, the ability to take a plethora of different forms more or less on its own. It is important to note that while the rejection of omniscience is not necessarily a tenet of process theology, Charles Hartshorne did reject the doctrine of omniscience as a theological mistake.31 This may give more weight to the argument that the future is knowable, but God does not know it (or, at least, chooses not to know it for the sake of the allowance of free will.)

While the reframing of these attributes of God, as well as the expanded understanding of kenosis could be seen as a more or less coherent theological system on its own, some of the other ideas of process thought are worth examining to see if they can add more insight into the kenotic God. Panentheism is the idea that “the world is in some sense within God, even though God also transcends the world.”32 This is not to be confused with pantheism, the idea that the universe itself is divine. The idea of panentheism works well with a kenotic God; if the world is contained within God, then creation in itself is a sacrificial act in which God literally empties out a space within the divine so that creaturely or non-divine beings can live.33 Panentheism also takes God’s love for and relationship with the universe to the next level because the universe is closer and more dear to God than any classical view of theology could have considered. While this is a point that should be embraced in a kenotic theological system, the process view of panentheism does pose some problems in regards to some important foundational beliefs in Christianity that should be preserved.

The first problem that panentheism poses is that many process theologians reject the trinity in favor of this concept. This is because they see the universe as God’s body in some way; this means that the trinity is not necessary.34 However, panentheism and trinitarianism go together too perfectly to disregard either of the ideas. First of all, panentheists see creatures as distinct points of activity within God; trinitarians, likewise, hold that while God is one being, there are three distinct persons in the one being.35 If panentheism already accepts that there are multiple centers of activity within God, then it is perfectly plausible to hold trinitarian beliefs as well as panentheistic ones because the ideas are based on the same premise.36 God creates life within the spaces divine life to create the universe, it only makes things easier if the trinity always has existed as three distinct realities in the first place; the universe could be seen as a multitude of selves within the triune Self that is God.37 Trinitarian thought fits perfectly well with panentheism and both should be accepted in the kenotic theological system. This is because trinitarianism is an instrumental part of classical theology that is not limiting to one’s conceptualization of God, so it should not be rejected like the stagnated views of immutability, omniscience, and omnipotence. Additionally, panentheism is a useful way to understand God’s relationship with the world, as long as it does not interfere with other attributes of God such as
the trinity.

Another problem that arises out of process theology, and out of panentheism specifically, is process theology’s rejection of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. Since many process theists hold that the universe is God’s body, they reject the idea that the universe has not always existed.38 If God is defined by his relation to the world, then if the world did not exist at one point, God would not have existed either. However, once trinitarianism is established in process thought, then God has always had a divine relationship within the divine life, whether or not the universe has always existed. Additionally, while the universe has not always existed, God’s creative and relational nature means that God must create by his very nature. God’s decision to create the universe had to be a freely made divine decision.39 Like with all of the other sacrificial decisions made by the kenotic God, this is another aspect of God that is made more poignant when it is his choice to make, rather than an aspect of existence made necessary by a limitation of God.

A theological system based in kenosis will have a specific answer to both the problem of human free will and the problem of evil. The problem of free will is easily solved through the doctrine of kenosis. God limits his foreknowledge so the future is not fixed due to it being observed or put into place by God, or the future is simply unknowable (but in such a case kenosis becomes unnecessary). God also limits his power so his ability to use coercive power does not get in the way of human beings making choices on their own. This, however, is not always the case, since some people (as well as the church as a whole) allow the Holy Spirit to guide them more directly. Miracles are also an exception to this rule. Overall, God makes sacrifices to allow human beings to make their own decisions, even if their decisions are not what God would want from them.

As far as the problem of evil goes, the process idea of persuasive and coercive power provides a more or less satisfactory answer to the problem of evil so long as God does not have the ability to coerce people away from evil in any way. However, since a kenotic God can use coercive power but chooses not to, the question gets a bit more complicated. How can one justify evil in a system where God has the ability to stop it? The simplest solution is that God allows the world for the most part to its own devices, and then only uses persuasive power the vast majority of the time because that is the moral thing for God to do. God must allow his creation to choose evil in order for them to have free will. If he were to stop all evil through coercion, the universe becomes a puppet show, and free will becomes a lie; the relationship between humanity and the divine would be a sham. Additionally, when evil happens in the world, it is important to remember the pantheistic idea that the world is contained within God. This means that when people are hurt, God is hurt as well. God suffers with the universe so that he can lead it into a future where evil is no more.40

An important aspect of any theology is how its implications affect people in real life. As such, it is important to note that a kenotic view of God fits well with many concepts of liberation theology. The idea that God suffers with humanity and uses that to lead them towards fulfillment is an idea that seems right at home in liberation theology. The relationality of the kenotic God reinforces the idea of creation as the first act of salvation as well as the concept of creation and salvation as a joint process between God and humanity.41 “Process theology provides a reinterpretation of church doctrines which supports the liberation theologian's critique of the tradition and its ethic, and which is consonant with the worldview of a modern person.”42 The classical theistic view stems from a largely Eurocentric view of God, especially the doctrines that process theology rejects, like omnipotence and immutability.43 This helps people who are suffering in real life connect with God in a way that classical theism does not allow. An important way that this theological system can help suffering people understand God comes from the response to the problem of evil. In this system, God is not the cause of every event that happens in the world.44 This means that people are not forced into the idea that their marginalization is caused by God. It also gives people hope that God is there to help them. The beauty of a relational God is that he shares in the sufferings of the marginalized. In a sense, the oppressed have a relationship with God that a privileged person could never fully understand. God also takes these sufferings and uses them to move humanity forward, and one of the most important ways that humanity must move forward is to have fulfilling relationships with one
another that do not marginalize or oppress people.

This conglomeration of process and openness theology with the doctrine of kenosis offers a view of God that values love over everything. The kenotic God empties himself for the sake of humanity. While in some ways, this emptying makes God fundamentally less in some way in that his power is diminished, this God becomes infinitely more worthy of worship. The kenotic God is a God that is consistent with scripture while also breaking free from the chains of static traditional theology. In the same way, however, the kenotic God is consistent with much of the beliefs that people already have of God. It also softens some of the controversial language of process theology while keeping all of the fresh new insights that it offers into God. While God is still omnipotent and omniscient, he is also infinitely loving and relational through kenosis. This solves many of the problems that skeptics have with classical theology while still remaining in the realm of Christian orthodoxy. Perhaps the most important consequence of this system of thought is the real life implications. Not only would the acceptance of the kenotic theological system bring a greater sense of hope to people who are already Christians, it could also show skeptics a God who they could have faith in. The kenotic God is a result of a sound theological system and also has a message that brings a fresh and hopeful point of view into the realm of mainstream Christian thought.

Works Cited 
Basinger, David, William Hasker, Michael L Peterson, and Bruce R Reichenbach. Reason and   Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. n.p.: Oxford Univ Pr, 1991.

Basinger, David, William Hasker, Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, and John Sanders. The Openness  of God: a Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. Downers Grove,  Ill: InterVarsity Pr; Paternoster Pr, 1994.  

Clayton, Philip. "Kenotic trinitarian panentheism." Dialog 44, no. 3 (September 2005): 250-255. 

Cobb, John B. and Griffin, David Ray. Process Theology: an Introductory Exposition. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, c1976. 

Cooper, Burton. "How does God act in our time: an invitation to a dialogue between process and liberation theologies." Union Seminary Quarterly Review 32, no. 1 (September 1976): 25-35.  

Ford, Lewis S. The Lure of God: A Biblical Background for Process Theism. n.p.: Fortress Pr,   1978.  

Hartshorne, Charles. Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. Albany: SUNY Pr, 1984. 

McClain, Alva J. "The Doctrine of the Kenosis in Philippians 2:5-8." The Master's Seminary   Journal 9, no. 1 (1998 1998): 85-96. 

Pinnock, Clark H. Flame of Love: a Theology of the Holy Spirit. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity  Pr, 1996. 

Searching for an adequate God: a dialogue between process and free will theists. Ed. Cobb,   John B., Jr. and Pinnock, Clark H.  Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub, 2000.

[1] John B. Cobb and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: an Introductory Exposition, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, c1976, p. 14. 
[2] Ibid..
[3] Charles Hartshorne, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, Albany: SUNY Pr, 1984, p. 23
[4] Ibid., 3.
[5] David Basinger, William Hasker, Michael L Peterson, and Bruce R Reichenbach, Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, n.p.: Oxford Univ Pr, 1991, p. 149.
[6] Ibid., 148. 
[7] Philip Clayton, "Kenotic trinitarian panentheism,” Dialog 44, no. 3 (September 2005): pp. 250-251.
[8] Basinger, et al. Reason and Religious Belief, p. 148.
[9] David Basinger, William Hasker, Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, and John Sanders, The Openness  of God: a Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God, Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Pr; Paternoster Pr, 1994, p. 7. 
[10] Ibid..
[11] Ibid., 9
[12] Ibid., 8.
[13] Clayton, “Kenotic,” 250.
[14] Searching for an adequate God: a dialogue between process and free will theists, Ed. Cobb, John B., Jr. and Pinnock, Clark H. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub, 2000, p. ix. 
[15] Basinger, et. al, Reason and Religious Belief, 145.
[16] Clayton, “Kenotic,” 250.
[17] Basinger, et al, Reason and Religious Belief, 149.
[18]  Alva J. McClain, "The Doctrine of the Kenosis in Philippians 2:5-8,” The Master's Seminary Journal 9, no. 1 (1998 1998): 87. 
[19] McClain, “The Doctrine of the Kenosis,” 87.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Clayton, “Kenotic,” 252.
[22] Lewis S. Ford, The Lure of God: A Biblical Background for Process Theism, n.p.: Fortress Pr, 1978, 22.
[23] Ford, The Lure of God, 24.
[24] Basinger, et. al, The Openness of God, 7.
[25] Hartshorne, Omnipotence, 2.
[26] Ford, The Lure of God, 29.
[27] Basinger, et. al, Reason and Religious Belief, 149.
[28] Clark H. Pinnock, Flame of Love: a Theology of the Holy Spirit, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Pr, 1996, 115.
[29] Basinger, et. al, Reason and Religious Belief, 148.
[30] Ibid., 171.
[31] Hartshorne, Omniscience, 3.
[32] Clayton, “Kenotic,” 250
[33] Ibid., 252.
[34] Basinger, et. al, Reason and Religious Belief, 145.
[35] Clayton, “Kenotic,” 252.
[36] Ibid.
[37] Ibid., 253.
[38] Basinger, et. al, Reason and Religious Belief, 145
[39] Clayton, “Kenotic,” 251
[40] Ibid., 252.

[41] Burton Cooper, "How does God act in our time: an invitation to a dialogue between process and  liberation theologies,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 32, no. 1 (September 1976): p. 30.
[42] Cooper, “How does God act in our time,” 26.
[43] Ibid., 25.
[44] Ibid., 35.

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