Creation and Kenotic Love: A Descriptive and Critical Review

Creation and Kenotic Love: A Descriptive and Critical Review

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In perhaps the best science-and-religion book published in 2001, essayists grapple with how to envisage divine love at work in creation. Contributors to this important work, The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis, include Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke, Holmes Rolston, Malcom Jeeves, John Polkinghorne, George Ellis, Michael Welker, Jurgen Moltmann, Keith Ward, Paul Fiddes, and Sarah Coakley. The title word, kenosis, derives from a New Testament letter to a group of Christians in ancient Phillipi (Philippians 2:7). Biblical scholars typically translate kenosis as “self-emptying” or “self-offering.” Scholarly consensus does not exist, however, about how exactly to conceive of divine kenosis. Essayists in the book explore how varying notions of kenosis might help when imagining divine action in the world.

The following review consists, in the first segment, of a descriptive presentation of material offered in The Work of Love. I conclude the review, however, by offering an alternative concept of kenosis that I hope may push forward the rich discussion that this provocative book generates.

The Work of Love begins with a helpful overview essay by Ian Barbour. In his usual irenic and explanatory form, Barbour notes five themes that advocates of kenotic theology believe their perspective addresses more adequately than other theological alternatives. These themes include the integrity of nature, the problem of evil and suffering, the reality of human freedom, the Christian understanding of the cross, and feminist criticisms of the patriarchal God. Barbour also identifies particular themes in process theology as these they relate to creation, divine power, and love. Among these issues are the adequacy of God’s power, creatio ex nihilo and the Big Bang, eschatology and the Big Crunch, immortality, and resurrection.

Perhaps the most important issue highlighted by Barbour is the question whether, to display love, God is self-limited or limited due to metaphysical necessity. He notes that process theists affirm the metaphysical limitation of divine power, because, among other reasons, that vision of God allows one to affirm unequivocally that God loves relentlessly even though evil events occur. “To say that the limitation of God’s power is a metaphysical necessity rather than a voluntary self-limitation,” cautions Barbour, “is not to say that it is imposed by something outside God. This is not a Gnostic or Manichean dualism in which recalcitrant matter restricts God’s effort. … “(13). A question raised implicitly and to which I will return in my critique is this: Must divine kenosis be identified with voluntary divine self-limitation?

After Barbour’s piece, the book gradually moves from essays that are more scientifically oriented to those that are more theologically oriented—although virtually all essayists engage both scientific and religious issues. Arthur Peacocke contends in his essay that the evolutionary character of the actual process of creation justifies the notions that (1) God creates by self-offering and (2) God is self-limited. The data suggest that “biological evolution is continuous and evidences emergence of new forms of life” (22). The Hebrew conception of a living God correlates well with a God whose creative relation is dynamic, argues Peacocke, and this suggests that God is the “Immanent Creator.” There is no need to look for God as an “additional nonscientifically accessible factor supplementing these creative processes” (24).

While God is the ultimate ground and source of both law and necessity and of chance, God took a risk by creating through DNA mutations and randomness. In addition, suggests Peacocke, significant natural trends and propensities are built into evolution. These trends and propensities favor selection for complexity, information-processing and storage, pain and suffering, self-consciousness, and language. This all means that there can be “overall direction and implementation of divine purpose through chance (mutations) operating in a rule-obeying context (the environment) without a deterministic plan fixing in advance all the details of the structure(s) of what eventually emerges with personal qualities” (33). Divine purposiveness need not be divinely manipulated by special providence. “There is a creative self-emptying and self-offering (a kenosis) of God,” argues Peacocke. This entails “a sharing in the suffering of God’s creatures, in the very creative, evolutionary processes of the world” (38).

The cost to God when risking creation is “in a continuing self-limitation, which is the negative aspect of God’s creative action,” contends Peackocke, “and also in a self-inflicted vulnerability to the created processes in order to achieve an overriding purpose: the emergence of free persons” (40). In this voluntary vulnerability and self-limitation for the sake of creating free persons, we witness love as inherent in the divine nature. In particular, Jesus Christ intensely and transparently reveals God’s loving relation to creation.

Holmes Rolston, III, takes up the current sociobiological dogma that life inevitably entails maximizing short-sighted selfishness. Rolston wonders if this dogma depends “not so much on empirical evidence as on the choice of a general interpretive framework from which to view the phenomena” (44). Providing a quick overview of various biological theories that suggest that organisms are both selfish and unselfish, Rolston argues that the sharing and taking of genes themselves should not be considered in moral categories. Genes are, in the ethical sense, neither altruistic nor egoistic. Rolston even suggests that “there are no moral agents in wild nature. … Only humans are moral agents” (49).

The precursor of human kenosis begins in nonhuman emptying into species of larger populational and species lines. Such nonhuman, nonmoral kenosis emerges in an ecology of organisms that are interdependent and symbiotic. Kenosis occurs in life itself as the living order is perpetually redeemed in the midst of its perishing. “Death can be meaningfully integrated into the biological processes as a necessary counterpart to the advancing of life” suggests Rolston (59). “Creatures have been giving up their lives as a ransom for many. In that sense, Jesus is not the exception to the natural order, but a chief exemplification of it” (60).

Rolston concludes by returning to the theme of kenosis as voluntary self-limitation. “No action can be kenotic unless it is freely chosen. … No [nonhuman] organism has the power to consider self-limitation on behalf of others as one of its options. That level of choice only appears in humans” (62-63). Humans are called upon to limit themselves on behalf of others, but this kenosis “is complete only when humans can recognize the claims of nonhumans” (64). Malcom Jeeves focuses on recent evidence and theory in contemporary psychobiology. Recent evidence and theory sheds light on “the roots and fruits” of the self-giving component of kenotic behavior.

Responding to the early 20th century work of psychologist William Sanday, Jeeves notes that many today view personhood, in general, and “soulishness,” in particular, differently than Sanday. For instance, recent studies point to characteristics of soulishness as present in nonhumans. In fact, claims Jeeves, “within the Christian tradition it is not necessary to deny the emergence of elements of kenotic behavior in nonhuman primates in order to defend the uniqueness of the self-giving and self-emptying Christ” (89). Also, recent work suggests that both “top-down” and “bottom-up” influence occurs between brain and mind, which means that neurobiology places limits on our thoughts and actions.

In terms of self-giving as originating in self-determination, Jeeves reports that one’s behavior is directly dependent upon genetic endowment, neural substrate, upbringing, and other factors. This dependence point to limits in what may be regarded as kenosis. Recent theories in evolutionary psychology, including selfish gene, kin selection, and group selection theories, allow space for acknowledging self-giving and self-limiting behavior in less complex organisms “coming to full flower in humankind” (83). Jeeves concludes that the capacity for self-giving love may have polygenetic bases, and a kenotic community may be necessary for nurturing the development and expression of kenotic behavior. The book’s editor, John Polkinghorne, tackles the age-old question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Answering this question, he contends, “involves appeal to the divine love that has willed the existence of the truly other so that, through creation, this love is also bestowed outside the perichoretic exchange between the Persons of the Holy Trinity.”

Polkinghorne turns to kenosis as a way other than, on one hand, process theology’s God. The process doctrine of God is “open to [the] question whether deity has not been so evacuated of power that hope in God as the ground of ultimate fulfillment has been subverted” (92). Kenosis offers a way other than, on the other hand, classical theology’s God. The God of classical theism “is in total control and whose invulnerability is such that there is no reciprocal effect upon the divine nature of a kind that a truly loving relationship would seem to imply” (92).

Although affirming creatio ex nihilo, Polkinghorne believes that the evolutionary character of the universe requires that one complement creation out of nothing with creatio ex continua. Creation has been allowed to make itself, and “no longer can God be held to be totally and directly responsible for all that happens” (95). The doctrine also tempers somewhat the problem of evil by “maintaining God’s total benevolence but qualifying, in a kenotic way, the operation of God’s power” (96). “Of course, this is a self-qualification,” adds Polkinghorne. Such self-limitation of divine power “is quite different from Process Theology’s conception of an external metaphysical constraint upon the power of deity,” because the kenotic vision maintains “that nothing imposes conditions on God from the outside” (96).

The picture of divine action Polkinghorne offers involves God’s interaction with, but not arbitrary interruption of, creation. In previous books, Polkinghorne has argued that God’s special providence was limited to pure information input so that God was not considered one cause among others. The possibilities of kenosis have led Polkinghorne now, however, to reconsider divine action. In light of kenosis, he suggests that omnipotence “centers on the fundamental divine allowing of the created other to be and to act, so that, while all that happens is permitted by God’s special providence, not all that happens is in accordance with God’s will or brought about by special providence” (102). This means that Polkinghorne has “come to believe that the Creator’s kenotic love includes allowing divine special providence to act as a cause among causes” (104); God acts energetically as well as informationally.

George F. R. Ellis presents in his essay “the virtues of kenosis as a unifying theme in the understanding of both human life and cosmology” (107). Because God expresses kenosis, we ought to “be tuned to the welfare of others and of the world,” which entails self-sacrifice for the good of others. Divine kenosis is a voluntary choice whereby God exercises “total restraint in the use of God’s power,” suggests Ellis, “for otherwise a free response to God’s actions is not possible” (114).

The purpose of the universe, says Ellis, is to make possible creaturely sacrificial responses to a sacrificial God. This requires a universe with some degree of order, creatures with freedom, impartial natural laws, a God whose nature and activity is largely hidden, yet a nature open to those who wish to discern some things about it.

Ellis believes that the kenotic cosmology he offers implies that humans ought always to be willing to act sacrificially. However, “standing up to [evil] acts on behalf of the victim may call for defensive coercive action against one group in order to protect another group, and this may arguably be considered sometimes to be a consequence of the kenotic view” (123). Yet, true transformation “is only possible when heart and mind are persuaded rather than coerced” (126).

Michael Welker offers a brief comparative essay on romantic, covenantal, and kenotic loves. Kenotic divine love “reveals that God turns lovingly to those who … in themselves do not have any potential to reveal the goodness of God … , [and] who in themselves do not have any potential to help transform the world according to God’s will” (134). God turns to creatures and gives them space in order to liberate them and to ennoble them to experience and enact divine love. In sum, “God’s kenotic love, revealed in Christ’s love and bestowed on creatures by the working of the Holy Spirit, draws human lives into the creative love that makes them bearers of God’s presence and the incarnation of the new creation” (136).

Jurgen Moltmann proffers a theological vision that inspires many of the book’s essayists. Moltmann argues that one must “ask about God’s presence in the history of nature and in the chance events that herald a future which cannot be extrapolated from the past or present” (138).

The heart of Moltmann’s proposal is that God freely chooses to be the Creator of a world. God does so in that “(1) out of his infinite possibilities God realizes this particular [world], and renounces all others” and “(2) God’s self-determination to be Creator is linked with the consideration for his creation that allows it space and time and its own movement, so that it is not crushed by the divine reality or totally absorbed by it.” God “distances himself” from the world, and the “limitation of his infinity and omnipresence is itself an act of omnipotence” (145). God “withdrew himself into himself in order to make room for the world” and “to concede space for the presence of creation” (146). But it is for the sake of love that God is self-limited, according to Moltmann.

Keith Ward begins his essay be explaining that theologians in recent centuries have turned to kenotic theology so that they may speak of divine relationship with the world. Classical theologies often presupposed a conception of deity in which God is isolated and completely self-contained. Ward’s view of creation as kenosis includes the divine realization of possibilities eternally present in the divine being, which means that God enjoys values that would not have been enjoyable had a universe never been created.

Ward explores an idea that, as we will see in the Fiddes essay, is a central issue to be addressed when seeking to advance an adequate conception of kenosis. “Perhaps some realization [of possibilities] is essential to the divine nature,” speculates Ward, “so that God necessarily creates other personal agents. If one thinks that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16), that love is an essential property of the divine nature, and that love can only be properly exercised in relation to others who are free to reciprocate love or note, then the creation of some universe containing free finite agents seems to be an implication of the divine nature” (159). Ward is hesitant to take this position, however, stating that it is “a rather presumptuous exercise” to peculate about the divine nature.

The question whether love is a property of the divine nature applies to the questions of divine freedom, self-limitation, and love. When considering the incarnation, Ward, contrary to Moltmann, rejects a literal renunciation of divine powers and suggests instead that God chooses to exercise those powers in way that empowers creatures. “This is a sort of divine self-limitation,” acknowledges Ward, “but one that I have suggested might be seen as both divinely willed and as necessarily implicit in the divine nature” (162). But kenosis is not ultimately the last word, says Ward, for “as the beginning of creation is kenosis, so the end or consummation of creation is theosis” (166), whereby theosis entails that creatures share in God’s bliss and “become vehicles of the truly creative freedom of the divine nature” (166).

Paul Fiddes explores the “both problematic and immensely illuminating” claims that God creates out of love and love is at the heart of the universe. The claim that love is the reason for creation carries certain consequences, however. For instance, the claim implies that God has needs to be satisfied. It also implies that nondivine beings exist capable of relating lovingly with God. These two implications entail that both agape and eros are types of divine love. The claim that a loving God needs responses from creatures leads to a problem: If God, as love, is necessarily related to others, how can the world be contingent and God be free? One possible answer, notes Fiddes, is that God is subject to some external necessity that demands both a creating God and a created world. Some forms of process theology entail this. Fiddes rejects this alternative because it entails that God’s love is not entirely voluntary, and he requires that “lovers give each other everything freely, under no compulsion of necessity” (179).

Another answer to the problem of divine freedom and relatedness is that creative love is an essential property of the divine nature. This answer implies that some created universe is necessary, but our particular universe is not necessary. An advantage of this answer is that we can be confident that God will continue loving because love is God’s essential nature rather than a free decision. Although Fiddes suggest that this solution may be the best, he expresses his unease with it.

A third answer to the problem of love, divine freedom, and relatedness—and the answer that Fiddes personally prefers—starts with the divine will instead of the divine nature. This is the nominalist tradition, which entails that “God freely determines the kind of God that God will be” (181). Among other things, this position states that God freely chooses to give and receive love. The difficulties of this position are partly logical, however, for it seems illogical that one begin choosing prior to having a nature. Nevertheless, Fiddes prefers this position because it denotes God as a participatory event. Another difficulty with this position is that we no longer trust in God’s love; instead, we must trust the divine will. Fiddes believes that he overcomes this objection by claiming that, although God’s eternal nature is not love, we can only identify God as love from a finite perspective. The claim that God’s will comes before the divine nature can be overcome by conceiving God to be triune communion.

In the essay’s final segment, Fiddes addresses the problem of evil and suffering using the rubric of divine risk. He notes that some suffering is proportionate to what is necessary for the evolution of life. But the “disproportionate” and “inappropriate” pain that occurs in the world results from creaturely failure to respond appropriately to God’s persuasive influence. Because the divine will precedes the divine essence, God wills to suffer the pain of a disobedient creation, and this willing was “made once for all and on which God will never go back” (189).

Sarah Coakley’s essay concludes the book with a thesis that I noted early in this review: kenosis has been given a wide variety of meanings in different contexts in the Christian tradition. Coakley argues that decisions about theological starting points vitally affect the conclusions one reaches pertaining to how to conceive of kenosis. She notes that the self-sacrifice of kenosis has been a contentious theme in feminist theology, because it can be identified with the abasement that feminists seek to avoid.


I consider The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis to be a major step forward in the science-and-religion dialogue. If love is God’s chief attribute and creation provides primary evidence about who God is, then those who attempt to conceive of divine love at work in the world are doing preeminent conceptual work. However, instead of listing issue after issue that I believe the essayists are correct to advance, I conclude this review by suggesting a kenotic path for essayists to consider as perhaps more adequate than the one they currently explore.

A robust theory of kenosis requires that the problem of evil be resolved with an intellectually and existentially adequate solution. Theodicy was not in the purview of many of the book’s essays—and neither should it have been the focus of all of them. If, however, kenosis is to do the work necessary to be a coherent and adequate framework for advancing discussions between science and religion, divine love must be consistently championed and God must not be susceptible to charges of culpability for failing to prevent genuinely evil occurrences.

The problem with how most essayists conceptualize kenosis is that they insist on identifying it with divine self-limitation. But questions emerging from the problem of evil questions inevitably arise to the perceptive reader: Why wouldn’t this self-limited God occasionally become un-self-limited to prevent genuine evil? Wouldn’t a God whose love is relentless forsake self-imposed restraint to prevent horrific evils done to innocent victims?

I offer an alternative kenotic vision. This vision proffers a God whose essence is love, who necessarily “self-empties” or “self-offers” as a moment-by-moment cause among causes, and who relates with essentially free creatures. This God of kenosis is not culpable for failing to prevent genuine evil. I suggest that essayists entertain this kenotic God at work in creation, because this vision allows them to affirm divine love unequivocally. I will briefly explain what I mean in the following paragraphs.

First, to claim that God’s essence is love sidesteps the insuperable problem that Fiddes faces when envisioning the divine will as prior to the divine essence. Although he claims that God chose love “once for all and … God will never go back,” Fiddes has neither a rational nor an empirical basis upon which to claim that the God he envisions will not decide tomorrow to take on a nature of hate. To claim that God’s loving essence precedes God’s will, however, provides rational justification that the phrase, “God is love,” essentially describes deity.

Almost all the essayists suppose that creatures express some degree of freedom. The kenosis schemes that they propose, however, do not clearly identify whether this freedom is essential to creatures or if God can override or withdraw creaturely freedom. A God capable of vetoing the freedom of creatures ought to do so occasionally in the name of love. Vetoing the power for freedom of those who generate disproportionate evil—if such vetoing is metaphysically possible—is the loving thing to do. Unless one wants to claim that no genuinely evil event has ever occurred, one should adopt some scheme to account for why God has not vetoed the power of creatures who cause these evils. So, second, claiming that freedom is essential to creatures, such that God cannot remove creaturely freedom entirely, is a claim vital to an adequate vision of God as love.

Third, the kenotic vision I suggest entails the claim that God’s self-emptying is a necessary part of what it means for God to relate to, create, and empower nondivine others. This self-emptying is an essential property of God, and it does not entail voluntary self-limitation. After all, if creatures rely upon God’s self-emptying presence to exist, a loving God who could choose whether or not to be self-emptied would sometimes choose not to maintain the existence of creatures who inappropriately end the lives of others. A complete vision of a loving God requires God’s necessary kenotic relations with others.

The deficiencies of the voluntarily kenotic God are most profoundly seen in Moltmann’s proposal. According to him (see above), God is literally not omnipotent, not omnipresent, and not omniscient. This God distances himself from the world. In short, the God that Moltmann envisions runs half-throttle and from afar so that creatures can find the space to exist. If defending the primacy of divine love requires the half-throttle God he suggests, I might be tempted, albeit reluctantly, to adopt his proposal. But, as I have sought to show, kenosis need not entail such a God.

Many of the book’s essayists rightfully reject the notion that some force outside of or greater than God initially imposed metaphysical limitations upon God. I agree with Polkinghorne, for instance, that a more adequate doctrine of God entails that, as he put it, “nothing imposes conditions on God from the outside.” The alternative I suggest, however, begins with the divine essence as requiring relations with creatures. This alternative admittedly entails various metaphysical consequences pertaining to divine power and creaturely freedom, but these consequences arise from the divine essence and are not imposed by outside conditions.

Keith Ward wants to conceive of love as both “divinely willed” and “necessarily implicit in the divine nature.” The kenotic scheme I am suggesting provides for these dual aspects within deity. In my proposal, the necessary truth that God loves kenotically is involuntary for God, because love is an essential property of God’s essence. This necessary truth is involuntary, for instance, in the same way that God’s everlasting existence is involuntary. However, how God expresses love is a free choice. God voluntarily chooses how to express kenotic love in response to the emerging lives of creatures. God does not choose the particular how because it subsists as a necessary property of the divine essence. In this sense, God freely wills the creation of others, but because love is a necessary property of God’s essence, divine kenotic creating will necessarily be loving.

In sum, I commend essayists in this book for adopting a kenotic framework for talking about divine creative love at work in the world. It is my hope that this book will be the port from which new and important waters in the science-and-religion dialogue are sailed. I recommend, however, that the alternative notion of kenosis I have suggested be explored as perhaps a more adequate kenotic scheme overall.