International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis

edited by John C. Polkinghorne , Michael Welker

Introductory Essay by Christopher Southgate

The self-emptying of God in creation, of the divine Son in the Incarnation, of Jesus at the Passion, and of other humans according to his example, forms a very important complex of theological motifs, too often summarised or glossed over simply by reference to the catch-all term kenosis. This book contains eleven essays on this theme. Polkinghorne’s essay extends his long reflection on divine action by distinguishing different forms of kenosis. God not only manifests a kenosis of omnipotence and of eternity – and hence also of omniscience – but also a kenosis of causal status, allowing God’s self to be, at the Incarnation, a cause among causes. At times in some of these essays there seems to be an over-emphasis on destroying a particular opposing position - in Holmes Rolston III’s case the rhetoric of the selfish gene, in Polkinghorne’s the Thomist account of divine action in terms of double agency.

Brief reviews of the history of the concept of kenosis form part of the essays by Jürgen Moltmann and Michael Welker. Paul Fiddes mounts an important and carefully-argued case that a kenotic God is best conceived of by reference to the activity of the divine will, rather than in terms of a set of attributes. (Fiddes thus places himself at the opposite pole of the debate from a process theologian such as Ian Barbour, for whom kenosis is not a decision but an essential attribute of a God in relation to the world.)

George Ellis provides a careful but passionate exploration, born of the South African experience, of how human self-emptying can transform the possibilities for reconciliation. Arthur Peacocke’s essay develops his account of God’s relation to the sufferings of the non-human creation. Malcolm Jeeves reflects on whether there could be a gene for kenosis. Keith Ward emphasises that if we speak of the kenosis of God we must also speak of pleroma: self-emptying, in the classic text that informs all these papers, Phil. 2.5-11, is followed by high exaltation. For Ward kenosis gives rise to enosis, God entering into the being of those who freely consent, and theosis, the unity and sharing of those being with the divine life itself.

Too often the science-religion debate has been allowed to remain the province of a special-interest group, rather than being challenged and stimulated from other parts of theology. The last essay is therefore particularly important. Sarah Coakley casts doubt on dismissals of Thomist formulations of God’s relation to human freedom, and assumptions that freedom simply consists of being able to make choices contrary to the divine will. This understanding of freedom can certainly be over-emphasised at the expense of the perception that freedom is found in God’s service (so Cranmer), and in humans’ finding their rest in God (as in Augustine’s famous prayer).

The book is a very important resource, but misses an opportunity in not including detailed engagements with Coakley by Polkinghorne, Peacocke and Ward, who so stress the incompatibilist approach in building up their pictures of God’s providential relation to the world.