On Kenosis, with notes on Balthsar

“The self-surrender which he practiced before the Fall meant no struggle but only the delicious overcoming of an infinitesimal self-adherence which delighted to be overcome—of which we see a dim analogy in the rapturous mutual self-surrenders of lovers even now.”

The idea of God emptying himself in order to become man is at once both promising and puzzling. If God “became” man and in so doing emptied himself of his very divine attributes themselves, then in what sense could it really be true that it is God who is man? On the other hand, if the man Christ possessed the divine attributes – omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, impassibility, etc. – how could he really be a man with a human body and soul?

This post will not be an exploration of the doctrine of the Two Natures. I’m saving that for a future one. Rather, this post is designed to focus on one particular occurrence – namely the act of self-emptying or kenosis – as it pertains to God.

How can God, as God, empty himself? More modern thinkers will say that he can do this as God because there is an analogue for this act it in the very Trinity itself. This is because God’s nature is just to be in Triune relations. Therefore he must necessarily always be in Triune relations, for this is what makes him God. If, per impossible, he were to cease being in Triune relations, he would cease to be God. Thus what defines God as God, and what makes his acts consistent as the acts of God, is the fact that he does them – is eternally doing them – in his Triune relations.

This idea is really just an expansion of the earlier one regarding the Incarnation. The problem centers around the identification of properties and how a thing can remain itself. Simply put, if to be God means having the divine properties of a, b, and c, then insofar as God exists and does such and such, he has these properties as he does such and such. If any of them are lacking it is not God we are talking about – for God must necessarily have these properties – but something else, say a very powerful or wise angel, etc.

Thus, to restart the train of thought, since God as God empties and humbles himself in becoming man, one of his essential properties in his divine Triune life must involve an emptying and humbling of himself also. For again, if God’s triune relations did not involve these sort of acts, and if God’s essence is identical to his triune relations, God as God necessarily could not have such properties.

Modern theologians – Balthasar comes to mind – therefore want to say that, in light of this, since God as God does in fact empty and humble himself, this means that God as God also must experience in doing so the suffering and pain of self-sacrifice that attends such emptying. Thus Balthasar holds that in the very Triune relations themselves there is a “supra-kenosis,” a supra-emptying. The Father in creating the Son makes himself “destitute” of all that he is, and in so doing takes on the modality of suffering-for-the-sake-of-the-other. As he puts it “The unfolding of the Trinity is an eternal self-destitution of the persons toward each other. God as absolute love contains all modalities of love even the modality of suffering-separation and self-destitution motivated and anchored in the love exchange of the Trinitarian persons in the one God.” (Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, p. viii. – ix.)

Now, at first this is promising. In fact in my last post on the Dying God I was myself somewhat infatuated with this view. A God who suffers in his very being – essentially – as part of his love! How romantic! But after a little closer thought I see the devastating consequences – both logical and romantic – of such a belief.

The main problem is summed up in the quote at the beginning of this post. It can be put like this: why assume that a self-emptying and a humbling on the divine level necessarily entails suffering, pain, privation, or evil? You will often read Kenoticists and those who believe in a God who suffers in his very nature say something like this: “Kenosis captures the state of a thing that should be full (plerosis) but has been emptied. Suffering is the result of being emptied (of kenosis).*” But what I want to say is, why suppose that second sentence follows from the first? Why suppose that kenosis necessarily entails suffering?

If we suppose that it does, what results is basically a Dualist conception of God. For think, if God in his very essence and nature necessarily contains or “is” or “experiences” suffering and pain, he necessarily contains within himself evil. Therefore he needs evil to be what he is, and would not be what he is were that evil to be absent. But this is nothing else than to say that the Good as such needs Evil. All of theology rejects this notion. Good as such is independent, self-existent, fully real. It can be entirely on its own. It does not need Evil. It is the Evil as such which is needy. It is parasitic on the Good and could not exist except for it. Yet suffering and pain are real evils. Therefore, although they may need the Good for themselves to exist – say the good of a finite rational being in whom they can reside – nevertheless the Good as such does not need them and can exist without them.

To deny suffering and pain and “self-destitution” are evils would be to deny that they are themselves, and would be the same as saying that it is not better to be free from them than to experience them. Heaven therefore may be filled with an eternity of suffering and pain and be, since these things are good, the better for that.

I think we should say, rather, that although self-emptying is a necessary act of the persons of the Trinity in their own ad intra relations, this kenosis is not itself an act attended by pain and suffering. Rather, it is one done with indescribable joy. It was for the “joy set before him” that Christ endured the cross (Heb 12:2). For in the Trinity there is a perfect communion, a perfect penetration and knowledge of intellect and will, an uninterrupted experience of absolute love that cannot possibly be further increased. In God there is as it were no place or “foothold” for evil to make its dwelling and affect God. In fact that just is what it means to be God: to be absolutely and maximally good, “in whom is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). God is incapable of being better than he is, not because he is unable to do something, but because his goodness is so complete, so fully real, that there is no room for it to grow. There is not even the slightest spot of evil in himself that could be wiped away that would make him say “now I am better, now I am more fully experiencing Love and Goodness!”

In fallen man self-sacrifice and emptying involve pain and suffering. But that is because he is fallen and imperfect. In God, it seems to me much better to say that if kenosis is an act of the Trinity itself among the persons, then this very act itself, like all their acts of love, is one of ecstasy and unspeakable joy. Perfect Love need not have evil to be most lovely. Otherwise we must suppose that a perfect marriage must have death and separation to be perfect itself. Yet then Death would be a principle on par with Life. Life would not reign supreme. It would be conditioned in its goodness by an equal and opposite force which it needed in order to be fully itself. Although Dualism is certainly a manly religion, it is not the same as Christianity, which, as the medievalists said, holds that God or the Good is that which “has no opposite.”

In the end I think the matter can be put like this. Although it is true that evil cannot exist without good, it is false that good cannot exist without evil. As such the kenosis of God as God need not mean that God as God is subject to or suffers from evil.

*(Does God Suffer? Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theology of Holy Saturday Matthew Lewis Sutton)


3 thoughts on “On Kenosis, with notes on Balthsar

  1. Tom

    Malcolm: Why assume that a self-emptying and a humbling on the divine level necessarily entails suffering, pain, privation, or evil?

    Totally agree. We assume kenotic self-surrender entails suffering and pain because that’s part of our journey to kenotic participation in God. But there’s a priori reason to suppose the self-surrender to another in love entails ‘suffering’.

    I’ve read very little of von Balthasar, but my sense is that it’s impossible to reduce him to a single quote, even to one that seems to posit as obvious a passibilism as your quote does. It’s one thing to say the triune relations are kenotic in the sense that there is truly hypostatic self-surrender that defines the divine identities ad intra. Orthodox can say that. But to suppose this entails a suffering that negates the beatitude of God’s plenitude? (Actually Bulgakov says such a thing, but he says it’s eternally overcome as well – but then how’s it actually experienced as suffering/pain? Sadly, Bulgakov isn’t around to clarify). I know a few friends who are von Balthasar authorities (some recognized, some not) assure me that in the end he does not hold God to be passible in his essence, though he does understand there to be in God essentially an analog for the kenotic self-surrender by which we must come to our own fully personal existence and that this process in painful for us, but for God it is (a) not a ‘process’ which historical past, present, and future (which von Balthassar would absolutely agree with), and (b) does not involve any ‘privation’ of beatitude or existential suffering.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. malcolmsnotes Post author

      I’ve just got a hold of Bathasar’s book Mysterium Paschale where he lays out his thought on this. I’ll see what I think afterward.

      Of course, it really doesn’t matter what Bathsasar things *qua Bathasar.* We’re more concerned with the Truth and penetrating deeper than we are currently are. Whether or not we agree with the *particular* opinion of any theologian is secondary.



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