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.