Monday, May 26, 2008

"Spirit and Mind" -> What Is Kenosis?

By in large, I try to stay away from terms like "trinity." With my track record of literal interpretation of the the Bible, and my attraction to theology, you would think that I would be talking about it all the time. As a matter of fact, the early Church quickly came to love the term trinity. Wittiness the Athanasian Creed:

So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.
He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.

My biggest problem is that trinity is not mentioned anywhere in the scripture. We have the Father, who is God, the Spirit, who is God, and the Son, who is God. We know that there is only one God. Therefore, you would at surface value seem to have all the parts of the Trinity. However, I am uncomfortable simply calling this the Trinity, simply because if this was the label that we were to use, then I think God would use it in the Bible. Now, mind you, the Trinity is what I believe. However, I just believe that we can never fully understand the relationship of the Godhead.

So, with this being said, I am going to go directly into classical theology and use the term Trinity.

I am assuming that you either know about the basic framing of the doctrine of the Trinity or you can read about the basic framing of the Trinity on Wikipedia. What I would like to into the mechanics of the Trinity, and then I would like to look at the idea of Kenosis, which recently came up in the comments of this blog.

Let's hit a couple of highlights of the Trinity.

1. There is only one God.
2. This Godhead has separate persons.
3. All of these persons have their own roles

Now, if you do wander over to Wikipedia, you will see the Shield of The Trinity, or Scutum Fidei, which is at the beginning of this post. I think this does about as good as job as we can in giving a visual aid to the concept. However, as mentioned before, I also think that you can visualize a rough allegory in your own being. Here is the translated version of this very old device to describe the trinity.

You probably recognize that you are more than one thing. At the very least, you are familiar with a perception of dualism: that you have a mind and a separate body. While you recognize both exist, you are only whole when both are present. (And I have argued for a tri-nature in this blog, but since you may not be able to perceive it, I will not write about that here.) You are familiar with how the body will do things without you even thinking about it. The mind can ignore things that the body does. So, are you two people? No. There is only unity in the whole.

Now the above analogy quickly breaks down as it does not suggest the fullness of intelligence and personality in the Trinity, but it can give you a flavor of what we might call the Trinity. You have three parts of the Godhead, each with its own personality that may seem separate on one level, but they are all necessary to make up the Godhead.

Let's pull out another $.50 big word: Immutability.

Immutability is the belief that God is unchanging. I strongly adhere to this. God is the same today, yesterday, and tomorrow. A number of years ago, I was in a Sunday School class with a teacher that was elected to the position more because of his financial success rather than his knowledge of the Bible. (Sad but true. Often we ascribe financial success as equal to spirituality smart.) As he was teaching the Bible to us, he suggested that God had changed from the Old Testament to the New Testament.

"Wait a minute," I said. "Are you suggesting that God evolves?"

He answered in the affirmative.

Unfortunately, this was directly against the tenet held by the Church that I we were attending. I vigorously objected, and if I remember correctly, I basically drove this guy out of teaching. In retrospect, I did it in a very wrong way, as I should have restored him gently, but I will not spend more time on my own failures in the post.

I have seen this many times before. Both in Christian circles and non-Christian circles. People will read the New Testament and not the Old Testament. They will read the Gospels but not Revelation. The reason that they do this is that they are uncomfortable with the entire scripture. However, Jesus himself told us that the entire scripture was valid. If you have seen Jesus, you have seen the Father.

If we simply stop here, that Jesus and the Father is one with the Spirit, we then lose the flavor of what the scripture actually says about the Godhead. This is where we want to go back to the original picture at the beginning of the post. While Jesus is God, he is not the Father. I can't reinforce how important this is. To understand the Trinity, we must recognize that there is separation as well as unity.

Recently, on of the comments in this blog said, "...that means that indeed suffering (immutably and eternally) for the sins of the world, is not only something Christ does, but something the Father does as well."

See, while this is an attractive simplification of the Trinity unfortunately it leads to what some would call the heresy of Patripassianism, another $.50 word for the day. The derivation of the word should be pretty clear.

Patris = Father.
Passion = Suffering on the Cross.

This is closely related to a similar $.50 word: Sabellianism.

Let's talk about this for a minute. In the picture to the left you will see the famous book cover of Douglas R Hofstadter's Godel, Escher and Bach. In the picture, a cube hangs from a strings. Now, three lights are shown in three different directions, and you get 3 different letters on the wall. So, even though the object is the same, you see it in three different ways. Now, I have heard some people use analogies exactly like this to frame what the trinity is like. This means that God is all the same thing, but sometimes we see him in different ways. So the difference in the trinity is our perception of God, not in God intrinsically. This is Sabellianism, and it is strictly wrong.

God is made up three distinct personalities, and these three are separate and equal. They are all the same substance, they share all in common, they are one, yet they are different.

So, Jesus did suffer on the cross, but the Father did not. Patripassianism begs Sabellianism, and restores all linkage of the trinity so that no separation exists. However, if you examine the Bible you will see that God the Father is never called out as suffering. If you go to classical catechisms, such as Westminster, you will find that he call out that God has no emotional swings, which is called the impassibility of God.

Even if we call out that certain parts of the Godhead may be impassible, you have to be crazy to say that the Word was impassible. I believe that Son has emotions, and reading Jesus weeping over Jerusalem only points to this emotion. To be human is to have emotions. Therefore, in the Old Testament, when God became angry, at least the Personhood of the Son that had these emotions.

(The alternative, for the classic holder of impassibility is to suggest that these emotions were simply an anthropomorphic image, but this is completely unnecessary if you believe in the emotions of the Son.)

Now, you can see that this is all getting very confusing. This is beyond our conception, and every time we try and get a handle on it, we try and simplify it, which then leads to real problems. The best way of remembering this is not to know "what the Trinity is." We simply have to remember what the Trinity "is not."

However, even in this confusing area, we can put a little bit of a framework to help us.

For me, I find it helpful to think of the Godhead in terms of roles, characteristics, and actions.

1. The persons of the Godhead have separate roles.
2. The persons of the Godhead have the same characteristics, which are immutable.
3. The persons of the God have separate actions, which change according to the circumstances, and in these actions the may perform as different agents in the overall plan of God. This change in agency is not a difference in roles.

Let us return to impassibility. Now, at the risk of an imperfect analogy, my wife and I are one. However, in the family, we take very different roles. I will tell you that I will be tough to our children, when she is soft. When I know that she is grieving, I will be strong. If I am busy in the garage, she will be fixing meals. While this is trivial in comparison, I think it does illustrate a principle where God the Son suffers, so the God the Father does not. I think the doctrine of impassibility, as reflected in different roles in the Godhead, is the most rational exegesis of the scripture.

Let's explore the roles a bit more.

In the Godhead, the Father has the ultimate role of the Father. The best analogy to the Father? Obviously, it is what a good Father should be. A good Father holds the family together. The good Father leads the family. A good Father is the ultimate holder of responsibility. Do any of these adequately reflect the Father's role? No. But it is good enough for us to get a handle on it.

In the Godhead, the Spirit is the most mysterious of the personalities. The Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox split because of the Filioque Clause in the Nicene creed. I will not get into this here, but I believe God left it hazy for a purpose. You can read my thoughts here. Needless to say, the Spirit is clearly an agent that acts for the Godhead. Often it equips the Saints for Action.

In the Godhead, the Son has the role of Maker. All things are made in him and through him. The nature of the Godhead is one of redemption. I cannot stress this enough, and I wish I had already done a post on this. However, the immutable nature of redemption in the Trinity made it so that some mechanism of reconciling us to the Godhead would be achieved. In this light, it was Christ that became the sacrifice for us to be saved.

Now, HOW we are saved is under a lot of debate, and this is called Soteriology in theology. I have no desire to open this up now, but only to say that blood must be shed by Jesus to attain our salvation, and our belief in this as our salvation saves us. We can debate the mechanics of this, but the act to become saved is clear.

So, remember that the roles of the Godhead are all very different.

While the Godhead has these roles defined clearly, these roles will also drive different agencies (or sub-roles) depending on the circumstance. John 1 tells us that the Word (Jesus) made the earth. In his role as maker, he was a formative agent. However, Jesus was also responsible for making a device to reconcile God to man, which was to create the perfect sacrifice for our sins. In his role as sacrifice, he was a sacrificial agent. The agency change to fit the issue, but the role always staid the same. So, while the agency of maker of the earth, seems to be strongly different than the agency of sacrifice, we can recognize that both of these agencies fulfill the role of Maker.

After the role of sacrifice is done, Jesus will take on a different agency. He will still be the lamb, but he will act in a different way. While on earth, he would not break a bruised reed. In Revelations, he is a terrible and mighty lamb, whose wrath is fearful to the nations that have not accepted him as savior.

So, now we finally come to the idea of Kenosis. Unless you are an Open Theist, which I consider just plan wacky, you believe that God is immutable. The problem with this is that Jesus as incarnate, does not seem immutable at face value. Somehow, Christ emptied himself. This is called Kenosis, which is just the Greek word for emptying or empty.

Now, we get into a fight of the Church. What does Kenosis really mean? Those that adhere to a strong version of Kenosis would suggest that Jesus emptied himself of many characteristics of being God. He was no longer omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience. However, by taking this view, you step right into the hands of Arius and Arianism. A strong belief in Kenosis would brand you a neo-arianist.

Arius believed that Jesus did not always exist with God the Father. Thus, when on earth, Jesus was part God, but did not have the entirety of God in him. Obviously, if the Son was apart from the Father then not all of the immutable nature of the Godhead existed in the incarnation. Therefore, many of the "problems" of Jesus as fully God and fully man goes away.

I simply do not believe this because I believe that this is putting logic to a problem that is not understood.

And while this post has turned into a bit of a book, if you have made it this far, this is the most important part of this post.

Most people spend way too much time on figure to figuring out HOW Jesus became flesh, rather than ask WHY Jesus became flesh.

"Well, that is easy," you'll answer. "He became flesh to become a sacrifice."

To this, I will simply ask "Why?" Why did he need to come to earth? Why did this sacrifice happen on a cross. Why did it have to happen in Jerusalem? Why?

Jesus could have made the sacrifice well away from this earth. He could have had it done in an instant. He did have to become flesh. So, why did he?

If you think about it for a while, it becomes obvious. The reason that Jesus came to earth was to be an example. He lived the life that we were to live. Now, that he has done this, we can follow his example. He deserves praise and glory because he showed us how to live.

Why was Jesus born? To show us how to be born.
Why was Jesus obedient to his parents? To show us how to be obedient.
Why was Jesus baptized? To show us how to be baptized.
Why was Jesus preaching? To show us how to preach.
Why was Jesus suffering? To show us how to suffer.
Why was Jesus mocked? To show us how to return good for bad.
Why was Jesus killed? To show us how to lay down our lives.

See those that believe in strong Kenosis point to how Jesus called on the Father for help.

"See," they say, "if he was omnipotent, he would have used his own power."

They miss the point. Christ asked the Father for help because he was showing us the way. Even though Christ had omniscience, he would ask for guidance.

When Calvin wrote about Phil 2:5ff, he wrote that God emptied himself of glory, and while having all the immutable characteristics of God, he hid his glory behind a veil of flesh. He did not empty his Godhood. He only hid his Godhood.

At the end of the day, I feel most comfortable with Calvin's thoughts here.


Matthew N. Petersen said...

Thanks for the post, I'll get to the whole thing later, maybe on my blog. But quickly, I think the issue of Patripassionism is a red-herring.

As you said, it is Sabellianism which is the doctrine that, as you said, God the Father was born of the Virgin Mary. And Sabellianism is a position I strongly disagree with.

I think the Father suffered kenotically by giving His Son, and by watching His Son suffer.

And this sort of kenosis is, I believe, hinted at directly (and often implied by the full divinity of Christ). John 3:16 sums up my position. The Father loved the world, so He gave. The Son loved the world, so He came. Both involve pain--is there not pain when a father marries off his daughter? But different pain.

Also, I think that the answer you give to why the Son had to be Incarnate is too short. The Son became Incarnate to be God with us. He became Incarnate that we might see how to live, but also (or this precisely is) to show us God. "If you have seen the Father you have seen me." "The Son of Man does nothing on His own, but only what He sees His Father doing, and whatsoever the Father does, so the Son does for He hides nothing from Me." "That which we have seen with our eyes which human hands have handled..." "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." The Son precisely is the declaration of the Father to us, not merely the declaration of how we should be (though we should imitate our Father who is in heaven) but the declaration of who our Father is, our Light and in Whom is Life.

Theologic said...


You show a fine disposition of mind. I wish I was as bright you are at your age.

1. I understand your viewpoint on Kenosis. I think that the brethren will always debate this, as they have for years. (I assume that you also don't hold to impassibility for the Father.)

2. I agree my view on why the Son came is too short. I very much like your rounding out of this.

Uncle T.

Matthew N. Petersen said...

My thoughts on divine impassibility are a little complicated, but the short answer is, no, I hold that all three persons are impassible.

I'm really not sure how to communicate this at all--it's right at the horizon and I'm not sure how to logically order my thoughts. To see the first bit you need the latter part, but then to understand that latter part, you need the first.

So first, "impassibility" is a really bad word any more. For the Stoics, "impassibility" meant something like "indifference". But, as I understand it, the Christian Fathers radically changed the meaning to "always and inalterably willing our good." God is impassible means that God isn't a man--happy when we do good, angry when we do wrong--He always loves, always seeks and desires our good, for indeed, He is love.

On my understanding of the word, openness theology is precisely a rejection of divine impassibility. God is one way at one time, another way later. He can change and be effected by us. But such a doctrine has serious flaws: for something to change, it has to refer to something higher than it. I was in Moscow, now I'm in Louisville. But that change wouldn't be possible if it weren't for the fact that Moscow and Louisville exist outside me. So to say that God, in Himself, changes, that God is not impassible, seems to me to be to say that God refers to something higher than Him--that there exists something separate from Him to which He did not create, and with respect to which He changes.

Similarly, He is not Himself the Good, rather we desire something above Him which He possesses.

But it would seem God's simplicity implies God is stationary, unaffected by anything outside Himself.

But I don't think that is accurate. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are the ground of all, but they are radically dependent on each other. In his preface to The Four Loves Lewis asks how need love can reflect God (and concludes it cannot). But I think need Love is as Divine as Gift Love.

The Father loves the Son so much He needs to give Him a Gift. And He breaths forth His Spirit, as Gift to the Son. Nor is the Gift unnecessary, for the Son needs and longs for that Gift, and as such He receives the Gift with rejoicing, and returns a Gift of Thanksgiving back to the Father--the Holy Spirit. And indeed so grateful is the Son for the Holy Spirit that He needs to return Thanks, and so hungry is the Father for Thanks, he needs the Thanks given back to Him. The Father has not only a gift Love for the Son, but that gift Love precisely is a need love--the Holy Spirit.

And the Father so loves the world, that He gives us a Gift, His Son, and so giving, needs our thanksgiving. And so we offer back to Him His beloved Son in the bloodless Sacrifice of Thanksgiving. The Gift the Father gives us is the Son, and the Thanksgiving we give back is again the Son.

In History, this has been effected already, in the Annunciation and Presentation. The Father so loved the world He gave His Son. But Joseph and the Child's Mother so loved the Father that they gave Him back.

Thus, the Father has indeed not changed, for what Gift did the Holy Spirit return to the Father before the foundation of the World save the Son? The Gift, both given by the Father to us, and given to the Father by us, is the same Gift He has always given and received, even prior to creation, namely His beloved Son.

But how is this? Is not the giver new? The Father receives the Son from us, whereas before He had not. And indeed, the Son gives the Father a new gift: us.

Here I speak mysteries too great to be understood, but I believe that we shall see that, by the mystery of Pentecost, there is no new giver. There is nothing new, nothing Has changed, for all things have been made New. The Giver the Recipient and the Gift; the Lover the Beloved the Love; the Father the Son and the Spirit; the Father the Son of the Theotokos the Bride of the Lamb.

But even so, did the Lamb not suffer in a way contrary to the Divine? Are not the pains of the Cross different from Eternal Joys of God?

My answer: No. Everything the Son did while on earth was a reflection of God in Himself. In God Himself the Son is always mature, yet always a child on His Father's knee. And indeed, as the most beautiful music may contain tritones--indeed without some dissonance the music is plain and boring--so too in God Himself, there are pains. Pains ever swallowed up in Eternal Rapture. Pains that are indeed good and beautiful. Pains made good and beautiful by the Gift and Reception of the Eternal Comforter. But Pains nevertheless.

Sin only excepted. Sin may mar, but it cannot destroy. And indeed pain, as distinct from sin, is a positive thing--not a mere negation--and thus is (like a tritone in Bach) an integral part of the proper beauty of the world. Howsoever much the devil hack, yet he finds nothing but Christ, and a Christ the Spirit shall mend. And when He is mended we shall see that that End--that Omega--is indeed the Beginning--the Alpha--and also the Middle--the Lord Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary.

Theologic said...


A very enjoyable post. Two thoughts:

1. More thoughts on impassiblity

My understanding of impassibility is that it simply means that God does not suffer and doesn't have emotional swings. This is not to say that God is not love and he is not graceful.

With God you always know what you're going to get. You do something wrong, wrath is generated, and this wrath must be satisfied. However, he has both wrath and love. However, they are predictable.

When I was young, I remember JI Packer and Lewis describing this. They said that man often believes that "he can hurt God." Man believes that he has the ability to get an involuntary reaction to Man's action. In reality, God can leave man behind. He is not involuntarily pulled into anything.

However, as I wrote in my post, I don't see how you read the Bible and you don't see that the Word in the Flesh grieved and cried. He sweated great drops of blood. I see this as a separate role in the Godhead. Jesus has the role of having "more passion" in the Godhead. Again, the only way that I can explain it is my marriage. As my wife cries for my children, I know that I can be stronger. I turn off the emotions if I know that she will experience them. Somebody needs to grieve and somebody needs to be strong.

2. Music and dissonance

I would encourage you to pursue this analogy further. If the Son is simply a "perfect reflection" of the Father, we have the Oneness heresy left.

Dissonance is actually a very bad term, as it means "not getting along" as in "not unified in purpose" when used when talking
about people. In music theory, it refers to a mathematical property of not having rational integers between the overtones.

This is quite a bit more complicated. I may do a post on this now that you've brought it up, but there is a long history of music and Godhead. For a long time only Pythagorean Tuning was accepted by some branches of the Church (the French if I remember correctly) because this is the only tuning that resulted in perfect harmony and thus reflected the nature of God.

To your point, we should not go back to the pythagorean tuning nor should we go back to the idea of "perfect symetrical vibration" of the trinity. Many ratio in nature (think Pi or e) are irrational numbers, and yet God used these to make up the universe.

Bach was know for composing Counterpoint, and strictly speaking, counterpoint is not composing in chords (or triads or tritones). The interesting thing about counterpoint is that you take multiple melodies and weave them together. I the process of doing this, you get tritones. However, each melody has its own structural integrity. However, a different picture emerges when they are all played together.

Man, I am going to do a post on this if I have time.