CURIOUS: How did this vision of a suffering servant come to be linked with redemption from sin?
EAGER: Human beings are from their very animal beginnings social beings, and social beings learn what is right and what is wrong.
CURIOUS: I expect what is wrong is often accompanied by pain: either immediate pain, or painful consequences. We learn to look for pleasurable consequences. In any case we develop a sense of what is right and wrong. Then we also try to defer the painful consequences of doing wrong.
EAGER: We may try to defer consequences by asking forgiveness, or by offering some gift to appease retribution. Either the humility of being forgiven or the cost of the gift we surrender can be painful experiences. We are getting close to the idea of sacrifice.
CURIOUS: This discussion reminds me of the absurdity of the Duchess in Alice, who shrieked in pain before the pain occurred.
EAGER: Lewis Carroll’s meanings are seldom on the surface. Sacrifice is common in both primitive and civilized societies, and the Hebrew scriptures relate many kinds of sacrifice. The offer of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac his son was aborted by a revelation from God; this event has arguably marked the turning point away from human sacrifice. God is shown as saying he does not want even animal sacrifice, but the sacrifice of a humble heart and of thanksgiving.
CURIOUS: Then how did we get this awful doctrine that God had to sacrifice Jesus in order to satisfy Satan?
EAGER: That is a carryover from the belief that God and Satan are some how equally placed in struggling against each other; so for God to redeem the world a payment had to be paid to this Satan who had the world in bondage. The heavenly drama in the Book of Job might lead to that thinking, or come from that thinking. There are two issues of greater importance to us: just who is God? and who is Jesus?
CURIOUS: To what sources do we look to answer these questions?
EAGER: Our sources are scriptural: in the Hebrew scriptures God, in spite of being regarded as an almighty warrior and fearsome power, is again and again described as merciful, as a caring father - in some places Mother - a patient Lover; parental metaphors are subjective ways of understanding God as source of all being, the Creator. Against this background, Jesus refers constantly to God as Father - in the Aramaic language the gender is almost secondary. Jesus claims a close relation with his Father, but does not describe himself as Son of God.
In St John’s Gospel, however, Jesus refers to himself as “I AM HE;” this is the same self-description that Yahweh uses in the story of the Burning Bush, in response to Moses who asks God’s name. Jesus does call himself “The Son of Man,” with a suggestion of “Messiah.” Then there are the names for Jesus: Jesus’ given name “Yeshua” is the “One who Saves,” and the name given in the annunciation to Mary, “Emmanuel” - “God with Us.”
CURIOUS: Is that how the idea of God as Trinity began?
EAGER: Since Jesus identified himself as in a special relation with the Father, and promised to send his Spirit, and for his followers he himself appeared to be the Suffering Servant: so they came to believe that Jesus is divine. The Church and its theologians spent much heart-searching in coming to believe that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine.
CURIOUS: Would you say that this seeing Jesus as divine altered our understanding of God?
EAGER: If we thought of God as chiefly All-Powerful and All-Knowing then Jesus’ revelation of the Father was to change our emphasis in thinking of what and who God is. There is a very good example of this in our understanding of this important passage in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians:
“Have this mind among you, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
who, being in the form of God,
counted it not a prize to be on an equality with God,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,
being made in the likeness of human beings;
and being found in fashion as a human being,
he humbled himself,
and became obedient to death,
even the death of the cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted him
and bestowed on him the Name
which is above every Name,
that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow
in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord –
to the glory of God the Father.”
There has been steady re-evaluation of the meaning of “emptied himself” (eauton ekenosin) as found in the hymn in Philippians 2.
E.R. Fairweather was a a highly respected Anglican theologian, whose understanding of our faith helped in his Church’s decision to admit children to communion after baptism, and whose teaching helped in our decision to ordain women as deacons, priests and bishops. Yet when he wrote a note on the subject of kenosis in F.W.Beare’s edition of the Epistle to the Philippians he assumed that the Greek original suggested that the Christ emptied himself of “Godhead”. Fairweather continued the scholarly habit of rejecting “kenoticism” because it was seen to be a “depotentiation of God”, and the Son was in some way being seen as ceasing to be divine.
We now believe that the larger meaning of this passage is that the Christ, in becoming incarnate, was, in the role of a creature, acting out what it is God’s very nature to do in creating. So it is God’s nature to be self-emptying, which is way of describing love. In this reasoning God is seen as intending to become human in Jesus, from the very outset of Creation. This intention as part of God’s being, from eternity, has been seen by many as a given in God before the necessity of dealing with sin.
Perhaps the most moving modern writer about the self-emptying of God is the English parish priest W.H.Vanstone in his two short books, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense (in USA The Risk of God) 1977, and The Stature of Waiting,1982. He concludes the earlier book with a poem:
Morning glory, starlit sky,
Leaves in springtime, swallows’ flight,
Autumn gales, tremendous seas,
Sounds and scents of summer night;
Soaring music, tow’ring words,
Art’s perfection, scholar’s truth,
Joy supreme of human love,
Memory’s treasure, grace of youth;
Open, Lord, are these Thy gifts,
Gifts of Love to minds and sense;
Hidden in Love’s agony,
Love’s endeavour, Love’s expense.
Love that gives, gives ever more,
Gives with zeal, with eager hands,
Spares not, keeps not, all outpours,
Ventures all, its all expends.
Drained is love in making full;
Bound in setting others free;
Poor in making many rich;
Weak in giving power to be.
Therefore He Who Thee reveals
Hangs, O Father, on that Tree
Helpless; and the nails and thorns
Tell of what Thy love must be.
Thou art God; no monarch Thou
Throned in easy state to reign;
Thou art God, Whose arms of love
Aching, spent, the world sustain.
CURIOUS: That is amazing poetry.
EAGER: We use it as a hymn in worship
CURIOUS: But How does this idea of the Emptying God affect our understanding of God?
EAGER: We now believe that kenosis describes, not the emptying by the incarnate Son of the status of Godhead, but rather the very nature of Divine Being whose outpouring in love has resulted in the Creation as well as the redemption of the created order.
Here are some of the ways we interpret this renewal in theology.
First, we believe that all Christian knowledge of God is compatible with what is revealed by the words and acts and person of Jesus Christ.
Secondly, we believe that, from our human point of view, God’s innermost nature initiates and undergoes change, surrendering power in the loving acts of creation, becoming one of us, saving us.
CURIOUS: Surely that goes too far for the believers in Almighty God?
EAGER: Maybe. To create, is to let-be creation into existence; letting-be is loving. The self-giving of a love is a suffering, or passion, for love is precarious, vulnerable, and infinite. Such self-giving is the nature of both divine and human creativity.
CURIOUS: This view of God as personal is surely connected with our understanding of ourselves as persons.
EAGER: Personhood, relationship and transcendence are aspects of human life reflected in and from our understanding of the self-emptying reality of God as Trinity. That, and the significance of this kenotic theology for the way the Church exists through prayer are for further discussion.
CURIOUS: More than that, can we show that this understanding of God provides a better basis for a rapprochement with scientific thinking; that this is particularly so because scientific thinking has become more flexible through the emergence of new underlying themes in the understanding of the world, such as quantum indeterminacy.
NOTE: for a more detailed examination of the Emptying God readers please request a copy of Graham Cotter’s essay “Kenosis”, which is Chapter Two of The Quantum Christ. <firstname.lastname@example.org>