christianity philosophy theology

omnipotence and kenosis

From (before) Epicurus through to modern voices, there have been those who question that God can be both all-powerful and all-loving or all-good.  (“Because evil continues to exist, God is either not powerful enough to end it, or not good enough to want to end it.”)

Leaving to one side the interesting discussion about how we can know what ‘good’ means or how God’s goodness might be reconciled with evil in the world, let us assume a) that our notion of ‘good’ is trustworthy enough for our complaints about evil to be accurate, and b) that God indeed has ‘good’ intentions for the world, including the cesation of evil.  This allows us to focus on the question of how to reconcile God’s alleged omnipotence (all-power) and the (assumed) reality of evil.

It is quite a simple matter, I am convinced.  God’s omnipotence is retained, but must be appropriately conceived.  For me there are two extremes on a spectrum of understanding the amount and nature of God’s power.

At one end, you have a manipulative, rapist, one-for-one, tit-for-tat, view of power, which has been called ‘omni-causality’.  Imagine a controller at a control board with an unimaginably high numbers of switches, sliders and knobs, with labels reading everything from ‘miscarriage’ to ‘miracle’, from ‘germination’ to ‘genocide’.  Everything that happens is not only willed by God, but empowered by God.  Yikes.  Interestingly, this is the kind of control I think some people want God to have over creation, only minus the ‘bad’ phenomena.  So (as C.S. Lewis famously wrote) “a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults“, etc.  This would be a very suspect and strange world.

At the other end, you have a distant, detached and disinterested deity, whose only use of power was perhaps to create the world according to some natural laws.  Imagine a watchmaker who winds up the clock springs and then goes on holiday.  Perhaps able to do something about evil, but not willing or interested enough do what he is able to.

There is a lot of space between these two ends of the spectrum.  Inbetween an overly active rapist and an overly passive spy-in-the-sky.

Enter kenosis.

Kenosis means roughly ‘self-emptying’.  It is famously used of Christ in Phillippians 2, who ’emptied’ himself and took the form of a servant.  In the high Christology of this passage, Jesus remains ‘equal with God’ and thus fully divine, even as he takes on an additional, fully human, nature.

All this talk of ‘kenosis’ might sound all heady, but it’s actually far more ordinary than we may realise.  Beings with limited power do ‘kenosis’ all the time.  When driving a car, do you push the gas pedal down as far as you can?  No – and for very good reasons.  Driving, after all, is not about the amount of pressure on the pedal, but about transportation from one place to another.  God, I’m convinced,has the power to make, say, mountains do really weird things, such as levitate and/or turn to vanilla custard.  But that would be a really bizzare use of his power, wouldn’t it?  So having power doesn’t always mean using it in this or that particular way.  An omnipotent being who is also patient and wise would restrict itself from acting in ways that are impatient and unwise.

Then there is delegation.

Delegation is, in a sense, a form of kenosis.  God limits himself not only by refraining from some actions, but by delegating them to his creation.  God made creation in such a way that it has its own power and creativity.  ((this is why arguments over evolution and abiogenesis are such a waste of time.  So what if God made nature so awesomely that it can make life from non-life!? What an amazing creation!!))  Under and within the sovereignty of the Creator, creation is imbued with the freedom and power to actually ‘do stuff’.  Uniquely, humans have an immense degree of this freedom and power to ‘do stuff’.  Of course we can ‘do stuff’ that causes great good, and that causes great evil.

Again, lest this all sound a bit theoretical, think of any supervisor or parent or guardian you’ve ever had.  Ever had someone not only tell you what to do, but end up doing it for you?  How annoying!  Well, the God we glimpse in Jesus is not a micromanagerial, ‘autocratic’ God.  But neither is God a ‘laissez faire’ non-leader, who couldn’t care less what we do.  God is more a communicative/particpative God.   A God who created a free world with free humans.  A world which is very good, but also contains very real evil.  A world in which those free humans become unfortuantely not-free – enslaved by evil and sin.  But it is also a world in which God is patiently, participatively and persistently at work to free humans, and in turn make them agents of his freedom.

14 replies on “omnipotence and kenosis”

Interesting post – the immediate question that leapt to mind (given your premises of a god existing and the notions of good/evil etc) is that while you have made a good argument for how god could be, how do you confirm that is actually how god is?

In other news, looks like I’m heading to Auckland over Easter so if you’re around I’ll try and drop in for a catch up :)

cheers Ian! :) (people still read my blog! cool!) :)

Yep, I’m content with this post to merely rebut the “could not” of those who say God “could not” be both omnipotent and omnibenevolent. :)

…oh, and keen for a catch up if/when you’re up in Auckland. I’ll be away at an Easter Camp from the Thursday to Monday, however, but let me know if you’re around either a) before Thursday or b) after Monday :)

Turns out I’ll be up from Wednesday (4th) until the Monday – looks like Wednesday morning or Wednesday night is going to be the best time to catch up? Flick me an email on ianluxmoore[at}gmail{dot]com might be the easiest way to figure it out.

Okay, so what about heaven? Earthquakes and other natural disasters happen… why? You might say that it’s intrinsically good for God in His kenosis to grant some autonomy to the physical processes of this world, for him to be at least semi-hands-off and let nature just ‘do stuff’ But if that’s actually a good thing, then why won’t the same stuff be going on in heaven? i.e. if it’s good for god to just ‘let stuff happen’ now, why will it be then? I’m talking specifically about so-called natural evil here. Either you’d have to say all natural evil is directly engineered by God – in which case God is the manipulative ‘rapist’ God for the most part after all. OR you’d say (as you seem to) that it’s intrinsically good for God to let nature make itself, operate via natural autonomous causes, etc etc… but if that’s so, why is this not going on in heaven? Does God become a rapist in heaven? Or is God still kind of ‘hands off’ in heaven, but no evil comes out of it? But if that’s the case, how on earth does this function as a theodicy? i.e. you can’t explain suffering as a product of a free nature, but then say in heaven such a free nature doesn’t produce suffering/a free nature isn’t necessary.


Hi David,
and welcome to the blog (don’t recognise your email?)
did you find the blog googling?

Yes, I do think it’s intrinsically good for the Creator to award genuine freedom/power to the creation. On that it seems we’re on teh same page – a ‘rapist’ manipulative deity is not good. It sounds as though your question is basically the same as asking “will we have free will in heaven?” except only in regard to non-human freedom (leading to ‘natural evil’) rather than human freedom (leading to human evil).

My view is that whilst God is ‘hands off’ in the sense of not micromanaging/manipulating, one-to-one every event that happens, God is nonetheless still active within creation/nature. And I think the Christian vision of ‘heaven’ (or ‘the new creation’ – or ‘the age to come’ – or ‘the new heavens & new earth’ [NHNE]) would be that of a liberated/healed/transformed (not ‘tamed’ or ‘drugged’ or ‘put down’!) cosmos, where the Creator still sustains and is active/present with/in all things. The question, therefore, is what will be the difference in the freedom given to nature now (which eventuated in what we call natural evil), and the freedom proper to the NHNE (which will not eventuate in any evil)? One wants to heavily coat such discussions with a healthy biblical dose of ‘agnosticism’ (1 Cor 13:9), for “the mind has not conceived” what the NHNE will be like; but alas, it’s a good question and worth considering.

My current understanding is that it was the intent of the Creator that the freedom of non-human creation is related to human freedom. Cosmically, the chaotic freedom in nature anticipated the chaos that would eventually reign in human nature. Locally, on earth, human evil spills over onto (i.e. climate change, pollution) and exasperates (i.e. earthquakes claim more lives than they need to – because we don’t share knowledge/resources with people who can’t afford to buy from us) natural evil. This human/nature relationship plays a key part in Paul’s understanding of the final ‘liberation’ of creation (Romans 8). The creation itself, currently ‘groaning’, will also be set free to share the liberty/freedom of the renewed/liberated humanity.

So to really play with the language, there are two important senses of ‘freedom’ going on here.
a) There is ‘freedom’ in the negative sense of not having power (hence the negative) to do what you want (i.e. I cannot pick up the beer bottle because my hands are tied, or because I am under-age, etc.)
b) There is ‘freedom’ in the positive sense of having power (hence positive) to do what you want (i.e. I will/want-to not pick up the beer bottle because I will/want-to not have too much to drink).

Interestingly, nature is both free and not free in sense ‘a’. Even free (non-determined) events (i.e. the person who did not *have* to get so much sun that he contracted cancer) are not free to break physical laws (i.e. the cancer cells take the form of a shark fin growing out his back).

But the goal of nature is to be liberated according to the sense of liberty/freedom ‘b’. Nature’s goal (as with humanity) is to be more herself (not less) than she currently is. What might a liberated physics look like? The mind boggles. But suffice to say that the Christian vision of a liberated cosmos is not a manipulated/raped existence, but of having such a freedom/liberty so as to be in right relationship to herself, humanity and the Creator.

…further thought…

I can of course only imagine how a new, liberated, evil-free creation would be like, but I’d certainly expect to see transformed/healed/liberated versions of all of the horrible things we see here – ‘violent’ weather, seismic activity, cosmic activity; pests, parasites & paper-cuts; cancers and crabs; etc. Nature is to be remade to be more terrifyingly and awesomely herself, not less. Again, the mind has not conceived :)

Hi Dale, thanks for your speedy reply! I did find the site through google, yes: I’ve been looking into this kind of kenotic questions as it’s been bothering me recently.

I have to say I think you give a very good description of what the new creation would be like – still retaining something at least analogous to the sort of autonomy it enjoys today, but without the chaos – but I’m still not entirely sure how you handle the central theodicy question of why it isn’t like that now! It seems as though creation, now and in the new creation, should always enjoy a kind of free autonomy, not completely determined by God – only in the new creation, God will be implementing more ‘safety features’ as it were, guiding and overlooking the creation in a more perfect way such that it still retains a kind of freedom, but not in the totally chaotic and evil-prone way it tends to exist in today. But again, why not have that now? You say that ‘it was the intent of the Creator that the freedom of non-human creation is related to human freedom’ but I’m not entirely certain why this should be the case. Humans sin, or at any rate perform various kinds of undetermined free-will acts… therefore nature must behave according to mechanistic laws which inevitably bring about chaos? I need this connection to be made clearer I’m afraid! :)

My own guess might be that, at the beginning of human life, it’s important that we’re set at a certain epistemic distance from God – i.e. that our whole environment isn’t just a perfect expression of God’s creative will – and this epistemic distance implies a real ontological distance, such that the world really does operate on the basis of objective/impersonal/mechanical/mathematical/whatever laws – and God can’t overlook the whole thing and stop certain things happening when it looks like there’ll be trouble, else he’d effectively have full control after all. We really must live in a world that’s not 100% guided by God, else we’d be completley obliterated and dominated by the divine nature – we’d curl up as it were, in our early human lives during the formation of our character and first free-will decisions, we cannot see the face of God and live. Having experience this normal, bog-standard life on earth however, we can then use that information to make a final decision at the eschaton to be fully with God for eternity – where we’ll now (hopefully!) be ready to look upon the face of God, and live in his more immediate and direction control and presence! So my conception of the ‘freedom of nature’ in heaven is probably less strong than yours – but I would still say that God lets us decide to do stuff spontaneously in heaven, and let’s other stuff just spontaneously happen, but he’s still guiding these interactions more closely to prevent chaos in a way He simply isn’t doing today – and he isn’t currently guiding things that closely to prevent us feeling overwhelmed. Maybe?

p.s. Just to be clear, when I say the world operates on impersonal laws etc right now, I don’t mean to imply that God has no influence whatsoever – I’m not saying God is a Deistic God until the eschaton! Just that His powers are more limited – miracles only occur in response to human faith and love, or in other certain very special conditions – special providence is there but in a way that’s to some extent closed to the chaotic processes of the world – but God is still guiding things. Just not as directly as He will be in the new creation.

Cheers David,
I like your thinking. All we have are analogies to describe these things, so we do the best we can, aye?
So to get at the inescapable “why not make a ‘new/perfect’ creation from the start!?” question, there are several metaphors we might opt for. The most helpful metaphors would pick up on the necessity of a process, I think. Not that I’m buying into everything ‘process theology’. But take a harvesting metaphor, biblical as it is. God is the one who is growing things, and we get to water and tend the field, etc. but it is God that gives the increase. Now ‘evil’ comes in in the form of tares, that are allowed/left to grow along with the wheat until the final sorting. So at the time of harvest, at the end, there is still the relational dynamic that was present all along, but the tares have just been removed and burned. So take that back to creation, and you have evil that is a very real part of creation, but that will be eventually removed and extinguished (the victory already inaugurated through the Cross/Resurrection of Jesus). So the question becomes, why not just create a field that has no tares ever? Well, I’d say, because that would have to mean denying free will.

It seems that in order to have an authentic/genuine end result, you have to have an authentic/genuine process. In order to have a wedding, you have to have a courtship and engagement. In order to have a cake, you have to have the mixing and baking. In order to have a winning team, you have to have selection and training. In order to have an album, you have to have the songwriting and recording. In order to have a feast, you have to have the planting, harvesting and cooking. For me, ‘skipping to the end’ of the process would be a bit like the weirdness of God creating the universe 6 seconds ago, but giving us the illusion of memory and history. It would just seem wrong and unreal.

It seems that he creates free things that go through a process. A process that is genuinely free, but at the same time a process that he is faithfully (creatively and redemptively) involved in and sustaining, and will complete.

I hope these rambling thoughts around the ‘necessary process’ are helpful. It’s good for me anyway to be forced to tidy up the scattered bedroom of my understanding and make it a little more presentable :)


so it seems removing the process, and ‘skipping to the end result’ takes away the authenticity of the result. Like having a child without the sex, the hole in one without the practice (or even the swing of the club), the award without the performance, etc.

I can see the sense in what you’re saying. I have to say I’m still not too convinced by theodicies which appeal to the necessity of process re: the natural world for a number of reasons though. It seems to me, for example, that the whole point of the new creation is that, whilst it remains linked and rooted in the current creation, it’s a radically different thing… at any rate it doesn’t inevitably ‘evolve’ out of the current world, but is rather a product of God shaking things up a bit and remaking everything! Thus there’s not really any ‘process’ that’s dependent on the unpleasant chaotic stuff we see today to give rise to it…. even if some kind of process is necessary, I’m unclear why it should involve natural evil outside of free will… after all, collecting the ingredient for a cake, mixing and baking it, may sometimes be a chore, but I don’t think we’d want to call it evil! Also…. would you say that Jesus’ turning water into wine was ‘inauthentic’? Or any miracle for that matter? That seems to be a possible implication of those views.

I can certainly see why God can’t just fake our histories and why we really need to make genuine decisions and live in a world with some moral responsibility however. It’s just I don’t really see why the natural processes of the world require such a similar development stage – and I don’t really think an inanimate object (or collection of objects, or ‘nature’ in the abstract) can be described as in any meaningful sense ‘free’ anyway. In any case it all seems a rather aesthetic sort of harmony which makes me uncomfortable – as if God cares more about ‘fittingness’ than human lives… like somebody so obsessed with art and aesthetic beauty such that, even when his house is burning in chaos he resists firefighters helping because that wouldn’t be the ‘natural’ thing to do… or if he can stomach that, perhaps he jumps into action only to save his prized-paintings over his family! So I think I need a very clear reason why the randomness/freedom of the natural world has to be tied very closely to humanity, such that it’s ultimately for the human good come the eschaton. The theory I sketched in my previous post helps me a little with that, but I feel there’s more to it also. These things are very tricky though!

p.s. just realised I’ve actually been on this site before, where I came across the essay of yours on evolution and original sin, which I enjoyed greatly and found to be very similar to my own views, which was nice :)

Good stuff again David,
I too agree that creation will not simply ‘evolve’ into new creation :) By calling inanimate objects or ‘nature’ free, I am referring effectively to non-determinism. Sovereignty, rule – yes. Fatalistic, exacting determination – no. Or to use other terms, both chance and necessity. One thought I’d want to add regarding the relationship of non-human ‘freedom’ to human ‘free will’ (and this is not some kind of ‘therefore suffering is justifiable’ argument) would be that it does seem that suffering and chaos is what tends to most effectively produce maturity in humans – or you could even read this from natural selection. Death is necessary to ‘progress’ to biological diversity (progress in brackets, because scientifically speaking there is no teleology in biology!). Two examples come to mind: my son simply would not walk on his own unless I refused to help him by supporting his weight and holding his hands. Another example is giraffes: the mothers stand over their young and knock their legs out from under them, so that they learn to get up quickly to evade predators. Cruel love, baby! :P

Now, I’m quick to say that I don’t think God “determines” or directly, one-to-one ’causes’ any particular evil event. But the wonder of God’s providential sovereignty is that he has a habit of redeeming suffering (“you meant it unto me for evil, but the Lord meant it unto me for good…”). It matures us. God does not ’cause’ a rape, but (in addition to being an ever-present comfort in that pain) can use that raped person to comfort others who’ve been raped. Some might say this is trite, and I can see the point, but I still think the point holds that suffering (in and of itself pointless and chaotic) need not *stay* pointless. It’s kind of like ju-jitsu. The momentum of Evil is used to defeat/redeem it. Like the evil done to Jesus on the Cross. Whoops! Evil didn’t know its greatest victory would be its downfall. :P But anyway, hopefully those thoughts above are helpful re the relationship of ‘natural’ evil to human maturity.

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