Christ the Self-Emptying of God

Written by Lucien J. Richard Reviewed By Graham Tomlin

Lucien Richard attempts to develop and renew a kenotic approach to theology in this impressive and stimulating book. Despite its relatively brief form, it operates as a kind of systematic theology, shaped by the central theme that God’s nature is defined and expressed as kenosis, God’s self-limitation, or self-emptying. After a survey of the contemporary cultural context, it moves into several chapters on Christology where the cross, presented as the necessary culmination of Jesus’ life of self-giving love, is seen as the defining centre to any christological formulation. It proceeds to examine key NT texts, particularly of course, the hymn in Philippians and Mark’s gospel (although strangely without reference to Gundry’s commentary on Mark as an Apology for the Cross). In patristic theology, Richard suggests that fear of Arianism led to such a stress on the divinity of Christ that the distinctive and crucial insights of kenotic theology were lost. He concludes that the doctrine of divine impassibility is to be rejected as incompatible with any idea of kenosis as definitive of God’s nature. The Incarnation is to be seen not so much as ‘an assumption of a human nature by the eternal Logos, but a self-emptying on the part of God’. As such, human nature is not in essence in opposition to divinity, but complementary to it, specifically designed to reveal God. Creation and Incarnation are continuous with one another in that both are acts of self-emptying and self-limitation on the part of God. The book closes with some interesting insights offered by this approach to the understanding of suffering, and an account of what a ‘kenotic church’ might be like.

The book stimulates, provokes, and has much to offer as an exploration of this theme as a foundation for an understanding of God. It still leaves questions however. Richard conveys little sense of the cross as atonement, as achieving/enacting the reconciliation between God and his broken world, yet it is surely this very theme in the NT which makes the cross such an evocative symbol of God’s self-giving love for humanity and a model for Christian life and relationships. The cross can act as the criterion of an understanding of God and for Christian life only because it is the place where God has ‘reconciled the world to himself and it must be debatable how far the cross can act in the central way Richard wants it to without a stronger doctrine of atonement. Secondly, at the heart of the book is a methodological shift away from an older model of kenotic theology which begins with an understanding of God and Christ, and then decides ‘how much of the divine being can be brought within the limits of human existence’. The difficulty with this is that the image of self-emptying implies that there is something to be emptied; self-limiting implies there is a self to be limited. If the essence of God is defined as self-limitation, the language and image of kenosis does not work as neatly as it did with a firmer understanding of God’s transendence and independence of creation, which Richard loses in his preference for process theology. Thirdly, the high level of abstraction in the book becomes frustrating. One longs for a little more historical rootedness, or even some clearer idea of what this might mean in practice, rather than some general insights about liberation, compassion and love. Nonetheless, despite these caveats, the book has some important things to say, and provides a contemporary account of kenotic theology which will hopefully stimulate more thought in this important area of contemporary theology.

Graham Tomlin

Wycliffe Hall