Review of The Work of Love

I’m very interested in the concept of kenosis, which was particularly developed by Vanstone and Moltmann. Very briefly, this is an understanding (based on Philippians 2) that Jesus self-limited, emptied himself, during the incarnation. I’ll try and explore this more in other posts, but one of the more recent books to develop this idea is The Work of Love (2001) edited by John Polkinghorne. Probably inevitably, this book also gets involved in the current dispute over open theism, which I’ll explore elsewhere, although it’s worth noting that most of the contributors do hold a open theist position.

It is a collection of eleven essays arising out of two meetings of a diverse group of theologians and scientists, who met to discuss the insights afforded by a kenotic view of creation. The book’s subtitle is Creation as Kenosis which reflects the participants’ belief that the concept of kenosis can be broadened out from the Incarnation to other aspects of understanding God, most particularly in creation. Given the diversity of viewpoints, a wide range of perspectives are taken on what is meant to be the controlling theme of “creation as kenosis”.

The stated focus of the volume is to explore the relevance of kenosis to the understanding of creation, with all of the contributors making at least some reference to this. Polkinghorne roots his own discussion in both science and theology to explore the risk-taking Creator who lovingly interacts with creation, whilst giving it the freedom to be itself. Both Ellis and Welker basically concur, seeing kenosis as a unifying theme which expresses God’s character and provides an overarching understanding of the cosmic processes and humanity’s role within them, revealed in the life of Christ (Ellis), and as God’s kenotic love revealed in Christ which embraces the whole of creation (Welker).

Jeeves, using both science and theology, argues that humans do not so much have a soul as are a living being, thereby resisting any reduction to mere physicality. Rolston presents “a carefully nuanced mediation on the processes of nature” (as Polkinghorne says), in which he argues that nature has a cruciform shape, in which self-sacrifice plays an important role alongside the desire for self-actualization. Jeeves expands this, arguing there is the beginnings of kenotic behaviour in primates, as well as in individual and group human behaviour. They both therefore conclude that nature (human and non-human) are precursors to the kenosis exemplified in Christ.

Ward argues that God suffers through his affective knowledge of creation, which he sees as required for God to truly know the universe, rather than simply possessing propositional knowledge. He argues that there is a three stage redemptive process, of kenosis, enosis, and finally theosis, which, using the perichoretic understanding of the Trinity, he defines as the ultimate sharing of the redeemed cosmos in the life of God, whilst also maintaining separateness. A similar eschatological approach is found in Moltmann’s contribution.

Unlike most of the contributors, Barbour holds a process theology view, so sees God as working only through persuasion. From a more orthodox position, Peacocke argues that God’s action is immanent within the process of continuous creation, while recognising the costly nature of evolution as a vehicle for creation. This is also taken up by Fiddes argues that love is at the heart of creation, but also notes the “disproportionate” suffering present within the evolutionary process. He argues that this is due to the drifting of creation away from the divine purpose, although he leaves open the question of how this could actually occur. Unlike Barbour, but like most of the contributors, Fiddes does not see kenosis as an essential attribute of God, but rather as a freely chosen act of divine self-limitation.

However, Fiddes also argues that God needs creation, although he seeks to qualify this by arguing that God remains free, as he chooses to need a particular creation. This is very close to some arguments of process theology (such as those of Clayton) which argues that God only became dependent upon the universe having chosen to create.

Practical kenosis
Ellis stresses strongly that kenosis is a practical guide to human action, in that we should be willing to act in a sacrificial way. He also qualifies this by arguing that sacrificial actions have as their goal transformation, which cannot be achieved if the “opponent” expects a sacrificial act. He explicitly mentions women suffering domestic abuse in this context (while Southgate argues response to terrorism should also be included) and comments that some form of standing up to their opponent is required, which also demands courage and sacrifice.

Although the understanding of kenosis comes from Philippians 2, and refers to the incarnation, Coakley argues that most of the other contributors do not seem to regard the kenosis of Jesus as primary and central. These criticisms have some force; for example, Peacocke argues that it is only possible to speak of creation as a process due to the scientific evidence for evolution (both cosmic and biological), which suggests that the scientific account is foundational, while Jeeves also offers a robust defence of the place of modern science by arguing that as “truth cannot contradict truth” theology and modern science should not be contradictory. This however raises questions when considered in the light of the provisional status of truth claims in both disciplines and the fact that this search for understanding reality sometimes generates paradoxes which can only later be resolved.

However, the contributors were explicitly building on the work of Vanstone (in Love’s endeavour, love’s expense 1982) and Moltmann (in The Crucified God 1974) to explore the possibilities implied by this theological understanding, while many begin or end their contributions with an explicit reference to this understanding. Consequently, I think that Coakley’s argument is based on a methodological misunderstanding.

Ward argues that a kenotic understanding leads to the rejection of the classical view of God in favour of a relational, participative view of God, while Polkinghorne argues that as the Incarnation involves such a drastic divine involvement in time, it raises the possibility that time is not “wholly foreign” to the divine nature. Kenotic theism therefore argues that kenosis is not a new event at the Incarnation, but reveals something of God’s true character, meaning that kenosis “is eternally true of the perichoretic and reciprocal interrelations of the persons of the Trinity” (as Coakley puts it).

A number of the contributors explicitly mention that this is their starting point, with Welker talking of the kenotic love of God revealed in Christ, Fiddes rooting his discussion in the perfection of a dynamic and participational Trinity, and Jeeves discussing the understanding that kenotic self-giving is part of God’s Trinitarian nature and the mark of all his works. In his contribution to the volume, Moltmann draws on the understanding of Balthasar to argue that “kenotic self-surrender is God’s Trinitarian nature”. However, he also notes that Balthasar’s understanding led to a form of panentheism, with the world of human beings being seen by Balthasar as lying within the Trinity. Instead, Moltmann argues that God self-limited when creating the world to allow the co-existence of the other.

It is therefore difficult to wholly sustain Coakley’s argument that the contributors were using the understanding of God’s kenosis (whether in Jesus or the Trinity) simply in a “paradigmatic or illustrative” sense, although these arguments do remain an underdeveloped part of the overall argument of the book.

Holy Spirit?
My main criticism of this volume is the lack of focus on the role of the Holy Spirit (a fact which also seems to have gone unnoticed by those reviews I’ve seen). When mentioned, the Spirit is usually conceived of as the sort of impersonal force, influence or power shown by Fee in his excellent book God’s Empowering Presence to be a sub-Pauline conception. The best example of this is Polkinghorne identifying “the working of the Spirit with pure information input”. Also, Moltmann discusses God’s presence in creation without reference to the Spirit, and Ellis discusses kenosis as a guide to human action, without mentioning the empowering, enabling presence of the Holy Spirit.

As another example, Fiddes draws on Pannenberg’s impersonal conception of the Holy Spirit as a “field of force” to discuss how the triune God acts in the world. In fact, this is only part of Pannenberg’s understanding, as he also stresses the personal nature of the Spirit. This is more in line with the New Testament conception of the Spirit as the personal, empowering presence of the eternal God, which is actually recognised in the contributions by Barbour, Welker and Ward. Welker discusses Romans 5:5 which describes God’s love being poured into believers’ hearts through the Holy Spirit. Welker also discusses 1 Corinthians 12, which he argues shows the kenotic love of God in action through the Spirit, giving space for the individuality and depth of creatures to be revealed and developed.

Ward further develops this through the concept of enosis, the union of the divine with humans, which he sees as happening through the interpenetration of the Spirit, thereby expanding the concept of perichoresis. Ward argues that God acts through the Holy Spirit, which “actively empowers finite persons, so as to give them a share in the divine reconciling and redeeming activity in creation.” Barbour also discusses the work of the Holy Spirit as empowering, guiding and inspiring believers, which he notes require the active participation of individuals and is therefore consistent with kenotic theology.

So, a number of contributors would therefore have benefited from developing a fully Trinitarian picture of kenosis. This is especially the case given Meyensdorf’s understanding of the Spirit’s own kenosis, in which he points away from himself towards Jesus.

Amongst others, Swinburne (in The Christian God 1994) has offered a vigorous defence of non-kenotic conceptions of God. He notes that a kenotic Christology necessarily includes Christ giving up divine properties such as omniscience and omnipotence, but argues that these are essential to the divine nature and therefore cannot be given up. However, this conception of God’s attributes has been challenged by open theists, while kenotic Christology argues that the proper starting place for understanding the Trinity is God revealed in the Incarnation. This leads to a different understanding of God and therefore also his relations to his creation. As shown by many of the contributors to The Work of Love, when properly conceived, kenosis unites the Trinity and God’s actions of creation and redemption, as Welker demonstrates: “The power of God’s kenotic love, revealed in Christ’s love and bestowed on creation by the working of the Holy Spirit, draws human lives into the creative love that makes them bearers of God’s presence and the incarnation of the new creation.”


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