The suffering Christ and the un-suffering God
Earlier this year I read a piece [subscription required] in Books & Culture: A Christian Review by John G Stackhouse of Regent College. I’m not terribly familiar with Stackhouse except through his small book Finally Feminist which I enjoyed immensely and would encourage you to read (it takes only an evening). While you’re at it, subscribe to Books & Culture too. It is a wonderful resource.
The subject of Stackhouse’s article was kenotic theology. This is a way of conceiving of Christ’s sojourn on earth that takes seriously the Christ hymn of Philippians two which tells us that Jesus “emptied himself.”
Stackhouse defines the school of thought like this: “[Kenotic theology] suggests that God the Son voluntarily relinquished his powers as an equal member of the Trinity in order to experience a genuinely human life and death in our place.”
I have to confess not being all that familiar with the work of the any of the great theologians who emphasized kenosis. Having studied at a confessional and evangelical divinity school, there wasn’t a great deal of space for left in the curriculum the study of kenotic theologians. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, all education is necessarily limited by constraints such as time, faculty, and students who are interested in learning the subject (unless it is required).
There are problems with kenotic theology when you look at it from a reformed perspective. As Stackhouse notes, it challenges both the impassibility of God as well as the immutability of God. In effect, it argues that there are changes that take place in the life God (and in humanity) that do not undermine God’s divinity just as suffering may be experienced without fundamentally altering God’s divine nature. It’s worth asking the question precisely how God can change without somehow undermining His divinity and how God’s inability to suffer (His impassibility) relates to His deep providential concern for His people.
Kenotic theology is appealing in a number of ways. I’m sure that what makes it chiefly appealing is its potential pastoral implications. It has long been a criticism of reformed theology that its emphasis on God’s otherness and omnipotence makes Him difficult to relate to. It’s also been noted that hyper-Calvinism has almost no place for Jesus — it’s almost as though nothing had changed in the coming of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
In the midst of suffering is it more helpful (and we can argue about what this word really means) to hear that God is suffering with you or that God is in control of your situation?
As a pastor, I think it depends.
It is, of course, foolishness to enter into the suffering of another with a pithy statement asking them to “let go and let God.” Likewise, it is foolishness for those of us who are teachers in the church to basically espouse what Christian Smith has called “moral therapeutic deism” from pulpit, table, and font before suffering comes and then expect our parishioners to somehow experience that suffering with their belief in God’s sovereignty, and indeed His goodness, intact.
Rather, the role of the pastor and of the church is to teach and live the Scriptures in such a way as to apply them to our life together and our individual lives as well as to communicate theology so that it becomes a set of lenses that gives insight and shape to our life and experiences.
Ellen Charry’s book By the Renewing of Your Minds suggests that theology is not an abstract academic endeavor alone, but it is also a pastoral, local, embodied, way of forming the way a people know, experience, and follow the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. The contemporary church is in danger of forgetting this.
One of the great challenges of the parish is creating what Eugene Peterson has called a theological imagination. It is one thing (and certainly no bad thing) to be able to quote the catechism, but it is quite another thing to be able to see in one’s minds eye how God can be simultaneously loving, powerful, caring, and unsuffering. I doubt that any of us will ever be able to fully do this, perhaps some of the saint have come closest, but in the end the purpose of the church isn’t to make us happy so much as to make us saints.