Morris’ View of Kenotic Christology

In his book Our Idea of God (1991), Thomas Morris address the question of whether the incarnation of Christ (as described in the Chalcedonian Creed) is logically possible.

Can God Empty Himself?

He starts with the Anselmian concept of a greatest possible being, a concept which implies that God has all of the omni-attributes necessarily.[1] He observes that it is perfectly consistent for an individual essence to have multiple kinds-essences (like Jon is both a teacher and a lawyer) so there is no prima facie problem with Christ having two natures – rather, the properties that those distinct kind-essences instantiate are what create the paradox of the incarnation. To explain, Morris makes a subtle but important distinction between being merely human and fully human. A mere human nature has all the properties essential to being human, but this designation does not exhaust all the possible properties a human might have. This opens the door to a Being who is quite different in nature taking on a human nature, but also being more than that nature. But what happens when the attributes of these two natures come into conflict?

Morris considers the Kenotic view of the incarnation according to which the divine Son of God “empties” himself of certain divine qualities such omniscience and omnipotence in order to taken on a human nature. The Kenotic view differs from the classical view which holds that the God the Son added a human nature to his person without relinquishing the power and knowledge essential to his divine nature. Note: even the classical view acknowledges that certain divine prerogatives were given up in Christ’s self-emptying (see Philippians 2); it’s just that omnipotence and omniscience are essential divine properties and therefore cannot be given up without ceasing to be divine.

Now, when discussing the merits and drawbacks of the Kenotic view, Morris writes, “On this modally less extreme view of divinity, a divine being is not necessarily invulnerable to ignorance or weakness. He can render himself vulnerable to these deficiencies, he can take them on, while yet remaining truly divine” (p.167). But Morris finds the kenotic view unsatisfactory because of its less than maximally exalted view of divinity and for the way it supposedly tailors the concept of God in an ad hoc fashion just to make the incarnation coherent.

In my estimation, Morris fails to consider three possibilities:

(1) a self-limiting God is arguably more exalted and perfect than otherwise (this is C. Stephen Evans’ position);

(2) the charge of being ad hoc is weak because there may be other a priori philosophical grounds for preferring a kenotic view. For example, some philosophers such as Richard Swinburne (who, b/t/w is no friend of kenosis) maintains that omnipotence involves the ability to give up power, not just refrain from using it, which is what Kenotic theorists have been saying. Also, it is possible that the very nature of love itself (perhaps God’s most salient attribute) implies a deep form of self-limitation within the Trinity itself – deeper than simply being affected by another;

Finally, (3) Morris seems not to give the data of scriptural revelation adequate weight when assessing the a priori philosophical intuitions he appeals to for constructing his maximal concept of God. But if scripture indicates that God is able to limit himself by giving up some power (as suggested by Jesus’ radical dependence on the Father, and his profound identification with the plight of humanity), then I would say “all the worse for Anselmian theism!”

What do you, the reader, think? Is the divine Son of God less exalted if he is capable of giving up some of his own power to identify with us and become flesh? Is the very notion of God relinquishing power incoherent?

[1] Morris is assuming that the most “exalted” concept of divinity is a modally maximized one. But I beg to differ. C. Stephen Evans has argued that a God who can make himself vulnerable and weak, who can limit his own power and knowledge, is in fact greater and more excellent than a God who cannot. If this intuition is defensible, as I think it is, then I would claim, contra Morris, that the most exalted concept of divinity makes the maintenance of the omni-attributes contingent on the divine will. This would imply that God necessarily (in all possible worlds) possesses the property of “being omnipotent unless freely and temporarily choosing to be otherwise” (Morris, 1991 p.167).


5 thoughts on “Morris’ View of Kenotic Christology”

  1. Very nicely written! Thx for that.

    In my view, there are two questions:

    (i) Does the kenotic or the classical view more perfectly reflect a maximally exalted view of divinity?

    That’s difficult to judge for me though I thought the point about love was quite ingenious!

    (ii) Why have a maximally exalted view of divinity in the first place?

    …I brought up this second question because for me this second question is quite salient. I also brought it up because certain answers to this second question “solve” quite some riddles about divine properties, the problem of evil, etc.
    Roughly, I find that a view of God that presents him as *extremely* exalted (rather than *maximally* exalted) coheres well with scripture, with my experience of God, my intuitions, and with “folk spirituality”.
    Also, I find that the reliability of our reasoning diminishes dramatically when we move from “extremely large/great/beautiful/powerful/etc.” to “infinitely or maximally large/great/beautiful/powerful/etc.”
    Summarising: Given how bad we are at coherently thinking about maximums/infinities and given how little maximums/infinities add to tremendous respect I have for God and his glory, I might well try to escape the type of question (or at least its urgency) of this post by foregoing a belief in (or at least a theory of) a maximally great being.

    1. Hi Dominic,
      Regarding your comment about a divine being that is extremely (if not maximally) great, my wager is that some theists would find this being to be less worthy of worship if it is not maximally endowed with power, goodness, knowledge and so forth.

      First, this gets to the heart of one’s epistemology of revelation. Which does one trust more: the biblical revelation or philosophical intuitions? It seems to me that instead of polarizing, both should speak to the concept of God, one more loudly than the other depending on the context or issue under examination.

      Second, I resonate with your suspicion of the accuracy of a priori intuitions taken to the max. These intuitions about maximal greatness are clearly fallible, defeasible, and in my view, culturally conditioned (which is not to say they are untrustworthy or lack evidential force). For centuries, Christian theologians like Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas seemed to think that “simplicity” and “timelessness” were greater than mutability and temporal life. Today, very few philosophical theologians believe in divine simplicity, and many like Nick Wolterstorff argue that some of God’s conscious life develops temporally.

      In all, one’s interpretation of Christian claims about the Incarnation will be strongly influenced by one’s view of the legitimacy of “maximal greatness/perfect being theology.” Personally, I think this “top-down” approach – i.e. understanding the incarnation based on what one thinks “God” must be like – needs to be tempered by a more dialogical (or “two way”) approach in which strong emphasis is placed on understanding God vis-à-vis the qualities of Christ in the incarnation.

      1. Thanks for that and, especially for the two way approach. These are things I haven’t really though about much.

        Regarding the fact that some “some theists would find this being to be less worthy of worship if it is not maximally endowed with…”, I would answer those theists that whether one type of being A ought to worship another type of being B, probably depends as much on the “distance” in greatness between those two beings as it depends on how great B is. And as long as B is *extremely* great, I don’t see how that would diminish the worthiness of worship. But that’s just what I’d answer those theists — that’s not directly directed towards your thoughts.

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