Subordination in a Kenotic Key

I want to sketch here how subordination within the Godhead might be thought of along the lines of kenosis; specifically, Karl Barth’s concept of kenosis. If this is sketch is correct, then to affirm subordination within the Godhead is simply a corollary of affirming kenosis. The questions will then remain if this concept of kenotic-subordination can be accepted on theological grounds, as well as whether or not there is reason to accept it over the older formulations.

Interestingly enough, Barth tended away from presenting kenosis as ‘classically’ presented – that is, as a divestment of divine attributes. Rather, Barth argues for a ‘kenosis by addition’, where, simply put, God didn’t need to empty himself of divine attributes in order to become human. Crucial to this classical scheme is the idea that this kenosis is a strictly historical happening: kenosis happens when God becomes incarnate. This humiliation is not eternal or immanent, in other words, but economic. As Bruce McCormack argues:

If the acts and experiences of the man Jesus are to be the acts and experiences of the Son of God, if they are to be taken up into the divine life, then the relationship of the “person” to his human nature must be characterized by receptivity. And if this receptivity is not to effect a change in being of the eternal Son, then it must itself be grounded in the sovereign and free decision in which God makes himself to be a God “for us” in the covenant of grace. There must be, in other words, an eternal humility of the Son which makes the second mode of being of the one God to be what it is, as distinct from the first and third modes. To say this much is completely commensurate with saying that the Logos is already in eternity, as a consequence of election  a “composite Person.” But it should also be noted that if the incarnation is to effect no change in the being of the eternal Son, then the eternal humility of the Son  cannot consist in a divestment of anything proper to him as God. Such a divestment is ruled out of court by the concept of an eternal humility in any case. Therefore, the idea of a kenosis by divestment must be replaced by kenosis as an eternally willed non-use of the omni-attributes in and through the human nature to be assumed. I call this version of kenoticism “Reformed” because it lays all of its emphasis on the freedom of God and the sovereignly willed non-use of divine attributes (With Loud Cries and Tears’: The Humanity of the Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews, in The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology, ed. R. Bauckham et al p. 50).

There is a lot going on there, but I want to zero in on one particular aspect: that of the grounding of the economic in the eternal (also of interest is McCormack’s tying of immutability to kenosis here). For those familiar with Barth’s Trinitarian theology of correspondence (where what happens in the economy corresponds to what happens, and has its ground in what happens, in eternity), the picture should be slowly emerging (I discuss this in somewhat more detail here):

…the ‘self-emptying’ or ‘humiliation’ of the Son is not, in the first instance at least, a this-worldly, historical activity on the part of the Logos who has already become incarnate. For the ‘humiliation of the son’ in time has its roots in the eternal relation of the Son to the Father. (Bruce McCormack, “Kenoticism,” 248-249, as quoted in Phillip Tolliday, ‘Obedience and Subordination in Barth’s Trinity’)

To oversimplify: if the humiliation of the Son is historical, it is because it is first and foremost eternal.  Here a serious question emerges: how can the eternal Son obey the Father? Surely the Trinity share one will, nature, essence, being. Yet with only one will, how can obedience be had? The answer lies in Barth’s proleptic conception of the hypostatic union, by virtue of which a genuine human obedience can be effected – the mutual conditioning/common actualization of the divine and human wills:

Common actualisation means that what Jesus Christ does as the Son of God and in virtue of His divine essence, and what he does as the Son of Man and in exercise of His human essence, He not only does in the conjunction but in the strictest relationship of the one with the other. The divine expresses and reveals itself wholly in the sphere of the human, and the human serves and attests the divine. It is not merely that the goal is the same. It is determined by two different factors. But it is along the same road. At no point does the difference mean separation. (Karl Barth, CD IV.2, p. 115)

This common actualization then reaches into eternity:

‘Through the coinherence of simultaneity and sequence in eternity, Jesus Christ, truly God and truly human, is present at the beginning of all things. He is conceived as present by virtue of God’s eternal foreknowledge, in which something is true and real because it is divinely foreknown (not the reverse).’ (George Hunsinger, Reading Barth with Charity, p 62)

And, as Darren Sumner notes:

‘…while there are two natures and two wills in Jesus Christ, Barth insists that each of these is determined (or “commonly actualized”) according to their personal union. The human essence is drawn into obedient conformity to the divine, while the divine essence is given a new determination that, without the Incarnation and the unio hypostatica, it would not otherwise have had. What Jesus does in his divine essence he does not only in conjunction with his humanity but in the “strictest relationship” with it. If the divine essence is determined by its union with humanity, then Barth is able to say further that God’s willing in his second way of being is not necessarily identical with his God’s willing in his first way of being. While there is one divine will, in God’s second way of being that will is in relation to a particular human will as well – a relation of openness and receptivity to the humanity of Christ.’ (Advancing Trinitarian Theology p. 141-142)

This, then, is the cash value of McCormack’s above insistence that the divine essence, through the common actualization and the mutual determining, is actually characterized by receptivity – the receptivity of the divine nature and divine will to the personal union and mutual determination of the human nature and will. This receptivity is what allows for divine obedience, humiliation, and subordination in eternity.

So far, the picture I’ve sketched out looks something like this: (a) Humiliation is part of kenosis (b) whatever happens in the economy corresponds to eternity (c) obedience and subordination is part of kenosis and humiliation (d) therefore, obedience reaches into eternity. This is possible because of the eternity of the hypostatic union and the common actualization of the divine and human wills.Thus we can say that Jesus is obedient into eternity – he is eternally subordinate.

Now I showed before how Barth’s concept of subordination is ontological – that is, reaching into the very inner life of the Godhead. This post, hopefully, went some way towards fleshing out exactly how we can say that the Son is subordinate eternally by virtue of the common actualization. However, at the beginning of this post I posed two questions, one relating to whether or not we have reason to accept this sketch of subordination in kenotic terms, and the other relating to its viability on theological grounds. I want to answer, or at least gesture towards answer for, the former here and leave the latter for later.

This sketch of subordination by kenosis effectively puts election at the heart of the inner life of the Godhead. If the recent argument for Barth’s infralapsarianism hold, then it is the case that the Incarnation (and, consequently, all of this humiliation and condescension) are in response, however that cashes out, to the fall and sinful humanity. If these things (condescension, kenosis) are taken up into the inner life of the Godhead, then how is God’s inner life as God not made dependent on creation? This, to me, is the single biggest argument against a Barth-inspired subordination like I have sketched out here. The freedom of God seems seriously compromised on this viewpoint. So long as this objection remains, I think there is sound theological reason for not embracing this Barth-inspired kenotic subordination.



4 thoughts on “Subordination in a Kenotic Key

  1. Darren Sumner June 15, 2016 / 9:15 pm

    To ask the provocative question in response to your conclusion, Joshua: What if God freely willed that all of this should be so? If God is free (and not only free, but “the One who loves in freedom,” as Barth puts it), is God free enough to make God’s self “dependent on creation” in this way?

    Thank you for a fine summary. While for historical reasons I’m not convinced that the language of “kenosis” is the best to use here, I am eagerly awaiting the final version of Prof. McCormack’s lectures on what he calls “Reformed kenoticism.”


    • Joshua June 15, 2016 / 10:00 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, Darren! To take a stab at your question: to an extent, if we believe that God didn’t will to be God without us, we have to affirm that God has freely given up some of his freedom. But I’ve been bitten by the Molnar bug, and so will be hesitant in affirming anything more freedom-limiting than that. What would you suggest here?

      Regarding the language of kenosis – yeah, not the greatest language to use (while reading for this post, nearly every reference was to Thomasius and contemporaries. But I do share your anticipation for Prof. McCormack’s own kenotic project.


      • Darren Sumner June 16, 2016 / 2:09 am

        That’s a fine way to frame the question: If God willed to be God for us and not to be God without us (as Barth says), then what is nature and extent of God’s self-commitment to creatures? How far do we want (or, does Scripture permit us) to press this? Barth also says that God is not a “prisoner” of His own freedom, but rather uses that freedom to give Himself to communion with creatures (CD II/1, 303 – see Busch, The Great Passion, 114 and passim).

        So I would suggest that the argument “God cannot be dependent upon creation,” while seeking to safeguard divine freedom on classical grounds, in fact limits the freedom of God when considered on actualistic grounds (such as Barth’s).

        As for kenosis: For my money the old language of the status duplex ought to form the basis of our Christology, including “humility” and even “humiliation” (though the latter has some undesirable implications these days). In this respect McCormack’s attention to “tapeinosis” (rather than, or in concert with, kenosis) has been very instructive.


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