Towards a Kenotic Anthropology Part 1

I wrote this piece over four years ago now. I have some reservations about it now, and probably wouldn’t express myself in quite the same way. However, I think that there is something worth exploring here. I will post the concluding part tomorrow.

In a phrase destined to become the source of much controversy over the subsequent history of the church, in writing to the Philippian church the apostle Paul spoke of Christ’s ‘emptying’ of himself (Philippians 2:7-8). Theologians have since wrestled with the question of whether this ‘emptying’ ought to be understood as a reference to the incarnation, as a reference to (the already incarnate) Christ’s humbling himself in willingly taking the path of the cross, or as a comprehension of both actions within a single movement (some see an allusion to Isaiah 53:12). Among the many who have held that a reference to the incarnation is here intended, particular controversy has raged around views that conceive of kenosis as ‘a metaphysical self-emptying which provided the necessary precondition in God for the event of the incarnation’ (Bruce McCormack).

In his treatment of the passage, N.T. Wright acknowledges the importance of understanding the passage in terms of an Adam-christology, whilst arguing that the Adamic background to the hymn provides us with no justification for dismissing any reference to incarnation (Bauckham demurs, claiming that ‘Wright is trying to have his cake and eat it in combining a divine incarnational and an Adam christological approach’).

The contrast between Christ and Adam, which Dunn is correct to claim as the context within which the terms of the hymn must have their sense determined, is thus made most effectively if Christ is understood to have renounced the rank and privileges to which he had—and continued to have—every right.

Paul thus juxtaposes the first Adam with the last. ‘The temptation of Christ was not to snatch at a forbidden equality with God, but to cling to his rights and thereby opt out of the task allotted to him, that he should undo the results of Adam’s snatching.’ Where the first Adam grasped at equality with God (Genesis 3:4-5), the last Adam willingly took the path of self-emptying and self-abnegation, not clinging to the rights that he possessed. Such a form of kenosis does not involve the abandonment of certain powers of the divine nature to make the incarnation possible, but is the willing forgoing of privileges on the path of self-sacrifice.

The Adam-christology of Philippians 2 presents Christ, not merely as the one who sets right the human race that went wrong in Adam, but as the prototype and pattern of a new humanity, the model of the true obedience that Adam failed to give. Having presented Christ himself as the pattern that must be followed in 2:1-5, Paul immediately proceeds to articulate his own actions (2:17) and those of his fellow-workers, Timothy (2:20-21) and Epaphroditus (2:29-30), in terms of this pattern.

Placed alongside each other, Philippians 2 and 3 are mutually illuminating. It is in Philippians 3 that Paul employs the kenosis model most fully as a pattern for his autobiography. Taking a lengthy inventory of the privileges that he possessed as an observant Jew, Paul reckons all of these as rubbish for the sake of Christ. As Wright observes, Paul did not altogether abandon his Jewish identity, but re-interpreted it and resituated himself with relation to it. No longer treating it as something to be exploited, as something that entitled him ‘to adopt a position of effortless superiority’ over Gentiles, Paul interpreted it in terms of the call to forgo privileges for the sake of others. In being conformed to the death of Christ, Paul surrenders Jewish identity understood as a badge of exclusivity, division, entitlement and superiority and rediscovers it (cf. Philippians 3:2) as that which is to be continually sacrificed for the sake of Christ.

Within these posts I will be exploring the implications of kenosis for a theological anthropology. I will seek to demonstrate a connection between kenosis and the image of God and study some of the ways in which a kenotic anthropology promises new insights on the nature of the self and subjectivity. In critical dialogue with a number of philosophers and theologians, I will unpack some of the social and ethical consequences of such an anthropology.

Kenosis and True Humanity

The fact that the classic biblical presentation of the doctrine of kenosis is articulated in the form of an Adam-christology is highly significant. The import of the self-emptying of Christ is not merely subordinate to its immediate redemptive purpose. It is rather paradigmatic for a new humanity, a humanity to be formed in Christ in his role as the last Adam. Humanity will be perfected as it is ‘conformed’ to the death of Christ. This understanding is not merely based on a reading of one passage, but finds support throughout the Pauline literature.

In Philippians 2:8 Paul speaks of Christ becoming ‘obedient to the point of death’. In Romans 5:18-19, in contrasting Adam and Christ, he refers to the cross as Christ’s ‘righteous act’ and ‘obedience’. In Galatians 3, the ‘faith of Jesus Christ’, is understood by many to be a reference to the faithfulness of Christ in going to the cross. In each of these cases the obedience of Christ is cruciform in character.

It is also an obedience that provides the mould in which a new humanity is formed. Morna Hooker argues that πιστις ’Ιησου χριστου is best understood as ‘a concentric expression, which begins, always, from the faith of Christ himself, but which includes, necessarily, the answering faith of believers, who claim that faith as their own.’ As Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, ‘and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.’ True humanity is cross-shaped.

That the cross should provide the shape for authentic humanity is shocking. If anything, the cross seems to represent the abjection of humanity, its dehumanizing antithesis. The association of the image of God with the symbol of the cross seems scandalous. Far from being the true revelation of the image of God, the man on the cross seems to be the foreskin of humanity, who must be cut off for its wholeness to be achieved. In addition to all of this, proclaiming the cross to be formative of authentic humanity might seem to accord to the negations of sin and death the dignity of ontology.

As a being created in the image of God, man both symbolizes and represents God in his creation. The prohibition on images in the Old Testament is closely related to the recognition that only humanity is adequate to image God, only humanity is sufficiently theomorphic. Prima facie, there appears to be a radical incongruity between that which is theomorphic and that which is cruciform.

The connection, however, is one made by the New Testament itself. In God Crucified, Richard Bauckham approaches Jewish monotheism in terms of the category of divine identity, arguing that monotheism is to be understood in terms of YHWH’s uniqueness in creation and providential rule and covenantal dealings in history. For the Jews, these convictions provided the basis for the belief that YHWH would one day climactically reveal himself to be the one true God in the sight of the whole world. Bauckham argues that, in Philippians 2, we find a ‘christological statement of the identity of God’ and that Christ’s suffering, death and exaltation represent the ‘way in which the sovereignty of the one true God comes to be acknowledged by all the nations.’ He concludes:

The exaltation of Christ to participation in the unique divine sovereignty shows him to be included in the unique divine identity. But since the exalted Christ is first the humiliated Christ, since indeed it is because of his self-abnegation that he is exalted, his humiliation belongs to the identity of God as truly as his exaltation does. The identity of God—who God is—is revealed as much in self-abasement and service as it is in exaltation and rule.

Hans Urs von Balthasar warns of the dangers, when talking about the doctrine of kenosis, of either succumbing to the idea of a mutable and passible God, or of focusing so narrowly on the human nature of Christ that we run the risk of Monophysitism. As an alternative to such approaches, Balthasar counsels us to ground the self-emptying of Christ in the eternal divine processions. It is in the eternal generation of the Son that we find the precondition that renders all divine self-emptying in history possible.

Everything that can be thought and imagined where God is concerned is, in advance, included and transcended in this self-destitution which constitutes the person of the Father, and, at the same time, those of the Son and the Spirit. God as the ‘gulf’ (Eckhart: Un-Grand) of absolute Love contains in advance, eternally, all the modalities of love, of compassion, and even of a ‘separation’ motivated by love and founded on the infinite distinction between the hypostases — modalities which may manifest themselves in the course of a history of salvation involving sinful humankind.

In light of this, the cross can truly be seen as revelatory of the divine identity and cruciformity can be regarded as not merely consistent with, but essential to, being created in the image of God.

Kenosis and Sacrifice

In For the Life of the World, Alexander Schmemann argues for a definition of man as homo adorans:

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with his eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him.

In terms of such a definition, the true fulfilment of man’s nature is found, not in self-possession, but in the act of receiving his being as gift and rendering it as sacrifice. It is in laying down his life that man finds it.

Such a concept of personhood has been explored at length in the work of John Zizioulas. For Zizioulas true personhood and existence is ecstatic in character. True ecstasy is not a mere function of an ecstatic nature, but is the free movement of a person. The being of God — and of all true persons — is constituted by love as the true mode of existence. ‘Personhood’ is not to be confused with ‘personality’: ‘personality’ concerns the natural and moral qualities that the person possesses; ‘personhood’ is a matter of radical otherness. Personality concerns differences; personhood concerns uniqueness and, consequently, incommensurability and irreplaceability.

For Zizioulas, ‘one is truly oneself in so far as one is hypostasized in the Other while emptying oneself so that the Other may be hypostasized in oneself.’ Zizioulas explores this connection between personhood and kenosis in the context of ascetic practice. Ascetic self-emptying aims at the overcoming of self-love, which is at the root of evil. This self-emptying is not an attempt at self-fulfilment, but seeks both to fully give over the I to the Other and open up the self to the full reception of the Other. Kenosis is thus the most personal of acts.

Understanding kenosis in terms of the ecstatic and receptive character of personhood can help us in understanding the redemptive significance of the self-emptying of Christ. Kenosis is both a reception of the Other and a rendering of the self to the Other. Recognizing the kenosis of Christ in Philippians 2 as a single movement involving two phases — incarnation and death — both the reception of the Other and the rendering of the self are seen to be present. In the act of incarnation, God grants himself to man and man receives God. By willingly living an entire human life and going through death itself, Christ receives the fullness of humanity into himself. By his innocence and obedience throughout, this life is continually rendered to God.

Kenosis, then, is to be understood in terms of an economy of gift. The death that results from the fall of Adam is the interruption of the cycle of gift. Christ’s death overcomes this death, by rendering death itself to God. As Robert Jenson observes, we can only truly think of death when we think of it as transcended, ‘located in a life beyond it.’ Jenson reasons that the death of Christ is an event founded in the relationship between the Father and the Son. However, for Christ this relationship is the very ‘ground of his actuality’ and thus, for Christ, death is located within a horizon of life and does not represent an ultimate horizon itself. In Christ, therefore, we see the overcoming of death as the interruption of the cycle of gift, as death itself is presented to God.

In defending an Anselmian doctrine of atonement, David Bentley Hart frames the doctrine of atonement in terms of recapitulation. Christ overcomes the death consequent on Adam’s disobedience by rendering the true obedience Adam denied, under the conditions of alienation established by that denial. For Hart, Christ’s sacrifice does not belong to an ‘economy of credit and exchange’, but belongs instead to the ‘infinite motions of God’s love’ It is not Christ’s suffering so much as his innocence and obedience that are significant, as it is Christ’s innocence and obedience that make the recapitulation effective. Christ’s obedience and self-emptying are saving as they reopen and render human nature to God.

As an entirely divine action, Christ’s sacrifice merely draws creation back into the eternal motion of divine love, for which it was fashioned…. [T]he donation that Christ makes of himself draws creation into God’s eternal “offering” of himself in the life of the Trinity.

Understanding the self-emptying of Christ in terms of an economy of gift we can arrive at a deeper appreciation of how kenosis can be constitutive of the image of God. Authentic humanity can have the kenosis of death as part of its definition, because, while death is never granted ontological ultimacy, death is essential to the movement of self-rendering to the Other. Christ overcomes the death of alienation introduced by the sin of Adam by recapitulating it as a death of self-rendering. For Christ, alone among all human persons, death was a willing and obedient laying down of his life.

The idea of a ‘good’ death is one that finds support in various places in Scripture. In John 12:24-25, Jesus addresses his disciples as follows:

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

In the analogy of the grain of wheat — an analogy explored in 1 Corinthians 15:35-49 — we find the suggestion that death is not merely abolished by a more ultimate life, but that death itself is in some sense a precondition of true life, its founding act. Death is either the irretrievable loss consequent on the refusal to render one’s life in sacrifice or it is that very rendering in sacrifice. Such a ‘good’ death would be a death that is always followed by a more glorious resurrection.

Read Part 2 here

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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3 Responses to Towards a Kenotic Anthropology Part 1

  1. Pingback: Towards a Kenotic Anthropology Part 2 | Alastair's Adversaria

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