Posted by: rogermitchell | May 6, 2012

What kenarchy means for our understanding of God

Today’s blog sets about the process of creating a general outline for the proposed Kenarchy Course. If you are new to this, for the sake of brevity I refer you to the previous post for an introduction. There the principle of starting only with the testimony of Jesus in our understanding of God, life and the universe is explained.

The four gospels expect us to encounter God through Jesus.
This is why I also refer to them as the “testimony of Jesus.” From the outset, God and Jesus are correlated with power, or authority. This is obvious, for example, in the connection that Mark makes between “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” and “Lord” (Grk kurios: supremacy) which in Strong’s concordance is taken to denote supreme authority (Mk 1:1-3). But the nature and operation of this power is immediately presented as being of a totally different kind to that which was expected, then and now. I call this difference ‘counterpolitical’ because instead of indicating power over people in the way that the political systems of this world generally function, the divine power that Jesus manifests is a kenotic, or self-emptying power that is given away for the benefit of others. This is clear in numerous ways. I will indicate just four of these here, and am asking you, as a reader who’s willing to collaborate in putting together the substance of this Kenarchy Course, for at least two things. Firstly, what do you make of these examples, and what better or further ones can you think of which show Jesus’ power, and therefore God’s, in this counterpolitical way? Secondly, if you disagree with the angle being taken in these interpretations, or perhaps want to agree but find problems, please say so, and give your reasons.

The difference between God’s counterpolitical power as demonstrated by Jesus and the way power has generally been understood:

i) God is not wholly other or separate from sinners according to Matthew: Jesus is given the name “God with us” (Emmanuel) (1:23), yet has already been described as a human being (1:1), deeply associated with human sin (1:3,6,10; cf Gen 38:15-29; 2 Sam 11:2-17; 2 Kings 21:1-6), a helpless baby (1:23,25), and a saviour from among us (1:21). This is not a God who is wholly other and separate to us in the way that we have generally been given to understand.
ii) God is not all-powerful or omnipotent from Mark’s perspective: Jesus is introduced as “Son of God” (1:1), and “Lord” (supreme authority) (1:3), and yet he is impelled by another (1:12) and tempted by yet another (1:13). So God is not irresistibly powerful as the almost universally accepted idea of God’s omnipotence has led us to expect.
iii) God is not absolutely sovereign over all, as Luke makes clear: Despite being designated great (Grk: megas), son of the Most High (Grk: hupsistos) and given throne (Grk: thronos) and reign (Grk: basileuō) (Lk 1:32), the status of Jesus is associated with humility (Lk 1:48), and the marginalised, in this case unborn babies (Lk 1:41-44), women (Lk 1:30, 41-43) and the poor (Lk 1:52-53). So for God, true greatness, the highest place, and the nature of governance is identified fully with the lowly, the poor and the excluded.
iv) God’s authority is not offended and needing appeasement from John’s viewpoint: While John is unequivocal about Jesus’ equivalence with the Father as in “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (Jn 1:18 NIV), the author then has him depicted as the lamb of God (Jn 1:29) who desires intimate relationships with humanity (Jn 1:38-39). If Jesus is fully revealing God, then God is the lamb carrying in himself the cost of intimacy with sinful human beings, rather than the traditional idea that Jesus is the sacrificial lamb providing access to the intimate side of a powerful sovereign God who has been offended by our rebellious behaviour and rejected us accordingly.

The implication of these four examples, given that it is God the creator, sustainer and ruler of all that Jesus reveals, is that the power through which all things are held together is kenotic power, not sovereign power. Or to put it another way, it actually is love that makes the world go round. My thinking is that these gospel depictions of power will open up practical discussion of the radical nature of God’s power in comparison to and distinction from the generally accepted expressions of power both then and now.

So please comment!


  1. Hi Roger

    You’ve succinctly defined ‘kenarchy’. Though I guess through discussion and a determination to live it out – the definition will evolve in our understanding as we move from theory to praxis. Where’s the equivalent succinct definition of ‘Sovereignty’? We all know what we think it means, but what does this blog define it as? If ‘Kenarchy is the theology we are moving towards, what exactly are we moving away from?

    Is it that Sovereignty, whatever you define it as, can never be ascribed to God?

    Is it that Sovereignty can describe some attributes of God, but that our understanding and experience of it has been so sullied by its percolation through empire, Graeco-roman world-views, etc. etc. that we have to jettison the term.

    Or is it, with another generation’s thinking, and seeing it the through the hermeneutic of Jesus, we’ll re-describe and re-embrace the sovereignty of God?

    Maybe if I trawl through all your blog posts, I’ll find the answers to my questions. Maybe if I’d paid a little bit more attention to the last 2 years’ worth of discussions on your blog, I’d have my answer – but I don’t.

    Many thanks, in advance, for the re-iteration.


  2. Hi Rosie, thanks for this. While you may be right that a trawl through the blog might give you the substance of what it is about ‘sovereignty’ that is being resisted here, it probably would not be the succinct re-iteration that you are asking for. The first chapter of my book would be a more fruitful place to look for definitions, but this course is aimed at a more accessible level, so your’s is a good question to that end!
    I think you put it well when you pose the question “Is it that Sovereignty can describe some attributes of God, but that our understanding and experience of it has been so sullied by its percolation through empire, Graeco-roman world-views, etc. etc. that we have to jettison the term.” I think that the answer to this is a definite yes, and that the kind of sovereignty we need to reject is strictly speaking “imperial sovereignty” by which I mean rulership by hierarchical domination, that is to say “the rule of the many by the one or the few for the ultimate benefit of the one or the few.” My book explores the transformation of this into what I call “multiplied sovereignty” where sovereign power is made available for purchase to more and more people by the few in the purpose of holding on to as much as possible for themselves. I suggest that contemporary assumptions about individual autonomy and human rights are still based on this view of sovereignty and that individual autonomy has its genesis in imperial sovereignty.
    The problem, from the perspective of my thesis, is that the marriage of church and empire has made the word sovereignty a core carrier of domination in the Western mindset for so long that it is difficult to conceive of recovering the term. So while we could conceivably talk about kenotic or even kenarchic sovereignty, it would be extremely marked and signal a sovereignty so stripped of the baggage of empire that I think it would be less confusing simply to stick with the new word kenarchy.

  3. Thank you so much for your response. So ‘Kenarchy’ it is then. As to a new language, new ways of re-iterating timeless truths, words scraped clean of imperial muck – Rumi and Bonhoeffer would be some of your greatest fans. You’re in fabulous company. What a journey we’re on. What a journey!

  4. Roger: it seems to me here that one of the key issues in what you are investigating is actually the relationship between the Father and the Son. You read the father through the life of the son but it occurs to me that much theology over the ages has separated the two quite a bit and given them quite different personalities and intentions. You appear to be reconnecting them.

    On another note I am reminded of the prayer that has been in vogue in charismatic circles for some time. I’m outside those circles now but for awhile it seemed like every pastor prayed that God would ‘sovereignly’ do something. I always thought that was kind of strange anyway. It seems rather than asking God to act with power that overrules all that we see as opposition we should instead be praying for kenotic outpouring in whatever area is in need of change. c.

  5. Having been part of the discussions regarding your thesis I am excited at how “kenarchy” can be presented in such an accessible way and the clarity of this blog. I have already been using some of the insights and its great seeing the impact they are having especially recently with some Koreans.
    When you ask for other examples the two which immediately spring to mind are John 13v 13-14 within the context of washing the disciple feet.
    ” You call me “Teacher” and “Lord” etc
    The other one is Mk 10 v 41- 45 which you have often quoted but particularly v 45

  6. To date I have not made as much progress in wrestling with the content of your book as I might have hoped! However, I believe I have read enough of your blog and the related comments to know that your research has presented us with a set of important and strategic challenges. At the moment I find myself wanting to agree but finding some initial problems, probably because of my own ignorance or my failure to understand the nuanced theology that you are putting forward. I will try to explain some of what these problems are. I will start with the general and move to the particular.

    It seems to me that God has revealed himself mainly through five different ways: By what he does, By His names, By Biblical images, through His attributes, BUT supremely and most clearly, although as I have indicated not exclusively, through Jesus Christ. Without doubt the nature and character of God are progressively revealed through Scripture. The uniplural form of the Hebrew word for God used Gen 1:1 is gradually revealed to eternally exist in three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Each is clearly in evidence at Jesus’s baptism and the transfiguration. These persons share the same divine nature yet are different in role and relationship. The heart of God’s being is thus one of unity and distinction.

    This brings me to the essence of two of my initial problems. 1. How does one maintain this sensitive balance between unity and distinction in the Godhead? 2. How does one maintain the delicate balance between the united and yet distinct divine and human natures in Christ?

    With regard to the Godhead it seems to me that there are two extremes to avoid – Tritheism, an overemphasis on the distinction between the persons of the Godhead, and Modalism, where the distinction between the persons in the Godhead is lost. [A fairly contemporary version of Modalism is found in the teaching of Oneness Pentecostalism and, until recently, in the teaching of T D Jakes.] However, I now wish to concentrate on the matter of Christology.

    As I understand it the Chalcedonian creed was formulated to affirm both Jesus’s full humanity and his full deity and with these two natures united in one person. It has also been used til the present day to teach about the two natures of Christ without falling into error. There are certain implications that follow from adopting this creed. However, it seems to me that this creed permits one to say that Jesus’s human nature can be seen to do something in which his divine nature does not share and yet this act can be attributed to God incarnate. Secondly, it makes clear that the incarnation is about taking on human attributes, not of giving up divine ones. Therefore, I believe that Jesus gave up the glory of living a divine life and lived out of his humanity while on earth. Thus I would suggest that Jesus agreed as a condition of his incarnation not to independently exercise the divine powers or the attributes that he still possessed in his divinity. I would further suggest, therefore, that he only did and said what Father did as a Spirit-filled, sinless man who was nevertheless simultaneously God. So to me the Kenosis is not about Jesus giving up any of the Incommunicable Attributes or any of the Communicable Attributes either, rather it is about the practical implications of choosing not to act independently out of his divinity and instead live as a spirit-filled man pouring himself out in love, servant-hood and self-giving. Therefore to me the heart of the matter is about, for example, the correct exercise of an omnipotent nature and the correct exercise of true sovereignty. So what is the true nature of God’s omnipotence and the true nature of His sovereignty? Moreover, what is the correct exercise of these?

    To me ‘God’s Omnipotence’ is that ‘God is able to accomplish all he plans and purposes – in other words all His holy will’ [Isaiah 46:8-13; cf Exod 6:3; Job 37:23; 42:1-6; Psalm 33:10-11; Psalm 91:1; Dan 4;34-35; Matt 28:18. But see also: Gen 1:1; Gen 18:14; Jer 32:17, 27; Matt 19:26; 20:15; John 1:1-3] This rules out, of course, inherent logical impossibilities like God making a stone He could not lift even if He might desire to do this! However, the way He chooses to accomplish all He plans and purposes is quite unlike the way human beings in the flesh would seek to accomplish these plans and purposes. That to me is the nub.

    Focusing on the current post I thus have issues with ii) and iii) because it is primarily the incarnated Jesus in view in the gospels. In other words the Son of Man, The Man Christ Jesus, The One who has chosen not to act out of his divine nature and yet who is fully God and fully Man. Hence, my problem is that if Jesus has chosen not to act out of his divine nature how can one then essentially say because he does not exercise these powers or attributes that he does not still possess them and thus neither does God?

    The problem for me, over and above that in ii) and iii), that is introduced by iv) is of a slightly different nature. John clearly identifies Jesus with the dominant sacrificial animal used in connection with the temple ritual, and particularly with the sin offerings, since it is Jesus who is the one who is taking away the sin of the world. Elsewhere in the NT Jesus is equated with the Passover Lamb [1 Cor 5:7] without spot or blemish [1 Pet 1:19] as required by the Torah [eg Exod 12:5, 29:1; Lev 1: 3, 10; 9:3; 23:12]. Why therefore can’t your point about the lamb of God carrying in himself the cost of intimacy sit quite happily alongside the traditional idea as Jesus as the sacrificial lamb if a right view of the nature of sovereignty and its exercise is also in place?

  7. Thanks Dave, as usual you expose the issues very clearly, Big thanks for that! I’ll respond by making three points.

    i) I am of the opinion that our Western thought has been permeated by an imperial understanding of power and authority at pretty much every level and that our theology is at the heart of it. So I am regarding theological orthodoxy with suspicion for the time being. For simplicity’s sake I am beginning with what you acknowledge as the way God has revealed himself “supremely and most clearly … through Jesus Christ.”

    ii) Precisely because of my initial hunch, and now approved thesis, that Western thought, and particularly theological thought, is carrying an imperial world view (see my comments on sovereignty in my response to Rosie above), I am deliberately challenging our thinking about God in ways such as the other four by which you suggest God has revealed himself: “what he does, by His names, by Biblical images, through His attributes.”

    iii) One of the most problematical theological areas, in my view, is that which the Chalcedonian Creed grapples with. You introduce this with your questions about unity and distinctiveness in the Godhead. “1. How does one maintain this sensitive balance between unity and distinction in the Godhead? 2. How does one maintain the delicate balance between the united and yet distinct divine and human natures in Christ?” However these questions arise outside of my attempt to understand God by arguing directly from the testimony of Jesus. If, once we have arrived at an understanding of God based on that testimony, these questions seem important to ask, then fine. But my concern is to leave them until then.
    You then suggest that the Chalcedonian Creed was formulated to help us understand “the two natures of Christ without falling into error.” As I discuss at some length in chapter two of my book with respect to the Nicaean Creed which preceded Chalcedon, the doctrine of the two natures is itself permeated with an imperial understanding of sovereignty, which led us to perceive a problem between the divine nature (necessarily all powerful and over the human) and the human nature, (necessarily limited in power and subservient to the divine). But this begs the whole question under investigation, if Jesus is fully revealing God. So quite without awkwardness, I am suggesting that these foundational Creeds and doctrines of Christianity are likely to be infected with empire and need to be set aside if they are incompatible with the testimony of Jesus.

    This may be a bit shocking to some, but it is what I’m suggesting is the implication of Kenarchy.

    • Thanks Roger. Understandably you desire to see the removal of imperial sovereignty and also the overlay of it that we and our forebears have, unwittingly, placed and maintained over God and in turn assimilated into so many areas of life and thinking. I am in agreement with that as an aim.

      In what I write below I attempting to follow the principle of finding and examining roots – for if the root is good, clearly the fruit will be too, but … [Matt 7:17-19] However, as you know, having not studied theology formally and having a somewhat analytical bent because of my background in science I may approach this material a little differently. Please permit me to start in the Old Testament – the Scriptures as far as Jesus was concerned – and move on to the Gospels.

      It seems to me that throughout history we have not heeded the words of the LORD through the Prophet Samuel in 1 Sam 8:1-22, although addressed to Israel, about what it would be like to have a, succession of, sinful human being(s) as king! Israel wanted to be just like all the other nations around them and thus it was the LORD’s reign [NKJV] over them as King [ESV] that was being rejected [see 1 Sam 8:7]. Not surprisingly, the ancient Babylonian or Empire/Imperial spiritual roots sprang up yet again! Subsequently, the Book of Isaiah clearly indicates that the given son/Son, who would have the government upon his shoulder and whose name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace would sit upon the throne of David to establish and uphold it …

      Surely this prophecy was fulfilled in the King of the Jews, namely Jesus of Nazareth who came in the flesh? [Matt 27:11, Luke 23: 2-4, John 18: 33-37] Admittedly, it is recorded that Jesus deflects responsibility back on Pilate, but John indicates in that passage that Jesus says that he was born for the purpose of kingship and that is why he came into the world. Of course, Jesus is very clear that his kingdom is not of this world and this would imply that neither would his kingship! He has in fact already given loads of evidence/testimony to that effect and is about to give still more! Jesus is quite clear about greatness in the Kingdom of heaven or Kingdom of God. [Matt 18: 1-4, Mark 9:33-37, Luke 9:46-48, Luke 14:11; 18:14; 22:24-30] In Luke 22:29 he even confirms that his Father has assigned him a kingdom.

      You clearly indicate that sovereignty is a tainted word, in the context of your book and in your comment to Rosie, and I absolutely agree. On page 15 of your book you reference the Oxford dictionary meaning of sovereignty and then on the next page rightly remind us of its close links to empire. However, for example, the Chambers English Dictionary also gives an additional definition of sovereignty as pre-eminence: supreme and independent power: the territory of a sovereign, or of a sovereign state. I would like to pick up on the pre-eminence aspect here. As I am sure you are aware Col 1:15-23 says much about the pre-eminence of Christ in everything! I have not thought through this, but can we not avoid the use of the term sovereignty altogether in connection with kingship, of Jesus and God by using the term pre-eminence and remind ourselves as to how Jesus outworked this? I know this is not testimony of Jesus from the Gospels, but in fairness neither is Phil 2:1-11. I am trying to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater as it were – because there does seem to me something about kingship that needs to be retained.

      Am I correct in thinking that you would also have a problem with the first seven ecumenical councils because they were called by the particular Roman Emperor of the time in order to give them legal status? Is another root problem associated with the Christology arising out of Nicaea 1 (AD 325) that it was Constantine who convened this ecumenical council? Further that he did this, under the [disputed] threat of banishing dissenters to any agreement to Illyria, in order to establish empire-wide agreement on the relationship between Jesus Christ and God the Father? My stance is that I am not convinced that at the time of the council Constantine was a true follower of Jesus and certainly if intimidation and domination were in evidence this would further undermine the nature of the agreement. Anyway I understand that Constantine, in the year AD 312, and several rivals wished to seize control of the imperial throne. One rival was Maxentius who challenged Constantine to battle. Constantine prayed to who he considered to be the supreme god at that time, Mithras – the Persian sun god – the god of his father. Apparently, in his response to his prayer he, reportedly, saw a vision of a flaming cross, or cross of light, in the sky next to the sun, along with words that translate to “Conquer by this”. He confronted Maxentius and won. The result was that Constantine announced that he was now a follower of Jesus. However, he did not seem to realise or understand who Jesus truly was. He interpreted the vision of the flaming cross next to the sun as indicating that Jesus was a manifestation of Mithras. That is why, I believe, he professed to follow Jesus Christ, but continued to openly worship pagan deities. That is why the triumphal arch [built after his supposed conversion], the gold coins, etc bear the image of Mithras. It is why in AD 321 when he made the Christian day of worship a Roman holiday he called it ‘the venerable day of the Sun’ from where the name Sunday derives, etc, etc, etc] Do you have any problem with the thirteen or so pre-ecumenical councils or synods? Perhaps, you only accept the council of Jerusalem because it is the only one mentioned in Scripture [see Acts 15, Gal 2].

      I will conclude with a recent quote attributed to Bill Johnson who has said that “We need to become comfortable with the mystery of God, without needing to create a theology on what we don’t yet understand.” In the light of the history of theology I would say these appear to be wise words!

  8. This is interesting. And yet again a thread that could well move a long way from what Roger is asking for. (That’s inevitable with more or less divergent contributors) But what interests me is how divergents are converging over the last ten years or so. I have felt, since the early days of the ‘emergent’ writers (so much writing, so prematurely) that we were seeing the beginning of a map being drawn upon which battle lines would later be overlaid. All such historical movements begin in the areas with which people feel uncomfortable. Where questions that have been long felt, arise and demand attention. (The Reformation is a good example)

    So, this current movement began over questions and discomforts with the experience of church community, with a sort of localised itch about the social dynamic of congregational behaviours. It moved rapidly on to questions of purpose and mission (inevitably). Other long felt bruises began to appear, justification, atonement theories and so on. And all the time I felt that we were in such early days, that the real topography was not yet being drawn. The underlying quest for authenticity has highlighted the importance of a historical perspective. The drive to return to apparent origins and to link more directly to them is essentially historical and leads equally inevitably to the prominence of those who are qualified to do such work (Wright, Dunn, Witherington etc). But here’s my problem, and the reason for more recent excitement, all of these things are like a dentist trying to find the cavities that are causing the pain. More literally, all of them are about fault lines that have been exposed but frequently ignored since the challenges of the Enlightenment, hence they all concern the end of Christendom. I felt then, and now, that we would not see the landscape fully until two things happened, first there had to be conflict over the Bible as the bible, the role and nature of the scriptures, and of canon, has to happen. It has become such a stronghold of half-baked theories and even superstition that it, the book, rather than the God whose authority is presumed in the book, has to become a primary arena for a deep quest for a fresh paradigm. Second, because I could not see this happening without it, was a similarly deep, and potentially painful, dialogue over the Trinity and especially how we get to and hold to the issues of Christ’s divinity and humanity.

    Stick with me, this is not as tangential to the topic of this thread as it sounds. I am so grateful for blogworld, it acts as a sort of barometer of popular thinking and sentiment (among many other analogies). All that I have mentioned is happening now. There are dozens of extremely lively websites, particularly in the US, where solid and deeply conflicted debate is happening in these areas. From the UK, though, there is one that combines both of my last two issues. This links to a post that should be particularly resonant for us

    I know that you know Andrew, Roger, because it was with him that you and I last saw each other at that weekend he arranged with Wright (scary thought). But I don’t know if you followed along either with OpenSource or its new incarnation as p.ost.

    This blog of yours, Roger, is very much a case in point. I love what you are doing with the idea of kenosis. But when I first saw this line I was concerned that even though you seemed to be going somewhere very fresh with it, you might live to regret the prominence of that term. This is simply because there has been such a long and awkward series of conflicts over the term for decades, that your work might be wrongly affected by the assumptions of those who are familiar with it. You are not borrowing from that debate at all, but some of its less helpful attributes might be lent to you whether you like it or not. However, this thread might well help to distance your blog from all that. The bitter disputes about kenosis are largely based upon issues of divinity and humanity, about the nature of what happened at the cross and so on. You have, rightly I think, seen the core issue of power in all of this and have given a strong differentiation with your emphasis on activism. (A form of praxis that I wish Andrew would begin to address. But that is unfair, it is not what his site is about. Although I do think that his thesis is not helped by the sketchiness of his thinking around and beyond Constantine)

    I do have some points to make about this thread, or rather some questions to ask, but I want to step back and ponder a while first. However, I really want to give my little thumbs up to the way you are framing the issue in the refusal of domination and the profound hope of sacrificial triumph that runs through it all. I hesitate to do the questions now because I suspect that having read quite deeply into Andrew Perriman’s blog over recent weeks I might end up saying to you things that I should be saying to him. So I just want to get my head on a bit straighter before saying anything substantial to anyone.

    Thanks again, Roger. And I like your comment, Dave.

  9. Thank you for your penetrating comments, Chris, to which I will only make a few responses given your reticence to go much further at this point. But three things stand out for me, the problem of the church community, the issue of the Bible and the questions over kenosis.
    (i) To begin with the church, it is true that the toxic environment provided by most expressions of church that I have encountered, including many that I have pioneered, has led me to explore what you refer to as “the core issue of power.” As my book makes clear for those with the necessary perseverance(!), I think that the understanding of power that has been embraced by the church is actually the demonic opposite of the power of God.
    (ii) When it comes to the issue of the Bible, I admit that my hermeneutical approach (method of interpretation) is quite existential and postmodern. As my book sets out, particularly in the final chapter, I like Tom Wright’s “critical realism” because it provides a reasoned basis for confidence in the text. But as I go on to explain there, the heart of my approach is my encounter with Jesus in the scriptures, which I find Graham Ward’s “economy of response” facilitates. It is because I met Jesus as a result of the testimony to him provided by the gospels, and continue to find him there, that I read the rest of scripture and ultimately all books including the “book of nature” through my encounter with him. To be frank, I struggle with a lot of Biblical and theological studies which don’t operate from this standpoint. I engage them for academic and political purposes more than from their ontological and practical use. I respect those who are called to and interested in the field and am priveleged to learn from them at various points, but I don’t see much of the work as central to the prophetic purpose that impels me.
    (iii) On the question of kenosis, I recognise that some expressions of kenotic theology may have caused “bitter disputes.” However, I am grateful for the courage with which many have explored the topic, as I make clear in chapter six of my book, which draws heavily on David Brown: Divine Humanity: Kenosis Explored and Defended. As I discuss there, and you recognise, failure to deal adequately with the problem of power spoils much kenotic theology. However, the fact that Kenarchy’s connection to kenotic theology connotes some of this, is not much more of a problem than the connection with the drum and base orientated student movement of the same name, just so long as what we DO mean by it is clear. Hence a Kenarchy Course!

  10. Thanks Roger.

    Your point 1… I agree completely. Where I see so much value in what you are doing here an in your writings is in addressing the hidden cost, if I can put it that way, of an erroneous embrace of power. We see it clearly enough in stories of abuses of power, but by the time we see this the disease is full grown. This embrace of power has prevented the church from understanding power at all. It has blinded us to the narratives of kenarchy that begin in the creation stories and end with a lamb.

    Your second point resonates as well. My comments were intended only in relation to the forum, the place of discourse. I appreciate, deeply, your position with regard to the prophetic foundation of our task. This probably explains why your blog and Martin’s are where I feel most at home. My difficulty arises when I feel that something is being shaken but cannot quite formulate a way of describing the drama that I see unfolding.

    I think there is great value in what Andrew is addressing, and in the debate that ensues, but I just wish such dialogue would look upwards and outwards more often. The idea that the church is living in a fifth act, called to improvise on the basis of what is written about the first four acts is fine until we make the mistake of thinking that it was ever any other way. What we have written is not a script, it is an account and commentary upon how the earlier acts of improvisation took place. In other words, the task of the people of God has always been prophetic. And in this sense the essential antagonism between the imperialistic nature of Christendom and the subversive nature of the prophetic are at the core of our time. What could be more subversive than discovering that the last thing that God wanted was for Israel to be ‘like other nations’ with her new king? What could be more counterintuitive than to realise that the sermon on the mount is not a prescription for being a nice Christian, but that it is a political manifesto for what Israel was supposed to have been and that the church is still meant to be.

    Like you, I suspect, I doubt that we are even capable of reading scripture without our readings being coloured by the legacy of such power structures. And this affects, deeply affects, the topics arising in this thread and many on Andrew’s site. I read all those detailed and quarrelsome points and want to ask, “why do we keep on talking about Jesus’ divinity as if we understood what that meant?” The whole debate, it seems to me, is slightly out of focus. I want to ask why this is a topic at all. What do we take from it if we think that saying that Jesus is God tells us something about Jesus? Surely the thrust of the gospels, as is shown in the current lead thread on Andrew’s blog, and in Wright’s ‘How God became King’, is that Jesus’ divinity is meant to show us something about divinity, something about the godness of God? Orthodox theology has always treated this issue as if it were a way of describing Jesus, a way of understanding him, a view from a position of power.

    What frustrates me is that this is such old ground. People have been asking such questions for centuries. Wright himself has done so, many times. And yet the habit remains. The addiction to authority and authoritative categories of understanding is so hard to shake off, yet I remain convinced that this is not the primary mode of understanding, it is not, as it were, God’s native language. Ah, well, the struggle continues.

    • I like your third point Chris. I find myself turned off by such theological discussions. Bored. Sorry, perhaps I should not be bored by them. I always think that anyway. To me, we will likely never truly settle all those questions on Jesus’s divinity and authority. And it doesn’t matter. Somehow the early disciples were able to get on with things so why can’t we? Jesus demonstrates what love looks like, a self-giving, self-pouring out with the knowledge that this will cost. So for me, the question of Jesus is a practical one? No, I don’t want to go into the faddish WWJD thing because it seems to me the people most generally involved in the fad are least likely to do what Jesus would do. But it is practical all the same. What does love look like? How do we know it when we see it? What does it demand of me and in relationship to whom? How can I give over and give up power in a relationship especially when several people are involved and issues are not clear? In a western culture that enthrones the individual as sovereign and exalts their power presumably as absolute (though most of the 99% experience that as a lie due to their real lack of social power), in such a world, how indeed should I live? The question isn’t what would Jesus do, but rather what has he already done and what then is the call on me? c.

  11. I know the blog has moved on, but I want to make a brief foray into this discussion. Bluntly, for me the revelation about kenarchic grace, the ‘from Jesus to God’ perspective, has dropped a ‘depth charge’ into my being, and I am now beginning to deal with the reverberations emanating up from within. This has already brought severe theological and practical impact – and, most significantly for me as a disciple of Jesus, there is a profound circumstantial impact. It seems that every way I turn there is a book I read, a situation I am dealing with, a friend I’m speaking to, where this fresh way of viewing God (that’s the bottom line, isn’t it?) is carrying a particular ‘anointing’ (what the heck, I can’t think of a better word!), because it is completely reconfiguring both my outlook and my output! I do understand that once you fix on something, you see it everywhere, but I’m talking uncanny here!

    A practical example. Last night I sat chairing a secondary school governor meeting, and as we spoke about developing our leadership role and how to deal with what someone described as ‘empire-building’ NLEs (National Leaders in Education), my thinking, my understanding, my speaking and my own leading were shaped by nothing less than the kenarchic grace I would say was somehow (don’t laugh!) rising up within me! It was as if this fresh understanding had come just for this very situation!

    And a theological one! As a long-time appreciator of Tom Wright, I read an extract from his latest book, ‘How God Became King,’ and was so disappointed. Why? Because it seemed to me that Wright, full of wit and sound argument as always, couldn’t see the ‘elephant’ in his article (if can put it like that!): ok, Jesus is God as King, yes: but what kind of king and kingship does Jesus represent? He had not a word to say about it, and the whole piece seemed to lose any meaning or point to me at all.

    So I’m not looking for objections or caveats or counter-arguments or historical precedents or anything else for this simple kenarchic understanding about how God loves and loves us. I want to start by treating what is at the very least a reasonable thesis as a given, and explore where it leads theologically, biblically, prophetically and practically, to see if the idea survives the process! That would be a great course!!

  12. Well, I drafted several versions of a response to your points here, and abandoned them when they turned into essays. Perhaps it will be more practical to respond in a shorter form and then unpack anything that seems too obscure if necessary.

    You seem here to be working around a single, crucial question. What image of God does kenarchy require? Theologically, perhaps it might become, how does kenarchy, as a mode of appreciating divinity, affect traditional and contemporary dogmatics? Along with the question that should always follow on from any theological statement… and how then should we live?

    I remember watching a large group from Pioneer shifting uncomfortably in their seats, many years ago, as the former Franciscan, Brennan Manning, spoke about ‘The God we imagine”. I loved it, but then I’m naughty. Even more I loved it when he bent Socrates to his point and declared that he could not “Give to my God the travesty of an unconsidered faith” The point of discomfort, of course, was the very idea that we imagine God. Your first point, that we encounter God through Jesus is really potent and should not surprise gospel readers, but it does. This is the way in which we are enabled to imagine God. This is the corrective to false images already held, Jesus is God saying to Israel ‘you have heard it said but I say to you’.

    Such questions as ours arise today because we are ready, perhaps, to feel them. Some people call this post-modernity, I tend to think that most post-modernists are just in the place where we can no longer live with the gaps between our images of God and our experience, or with the inherent conflicts between elements of our images of God. In an earlier draft I tried to get at this by using the writer’s tool of the point of view. I still think that approach has a lot going for it, but it would be a new idea for many people and required a lengthy treatment. But I do need to bring one aspect of it into play now.

    The commonly held idea that post-modernity is intolerant of metanarratives is, to my mind, merely an objection raised by modernity. One aspect of what is going on is that the paradigmatic point of view has shifted. If we take a few steps, or perhaps a lot of steps back from the New Testament we can see that as a body of literature and in common with most literature of that period, the NT has a point of view. It is largely a ground-level set of documents. I would describe it as having a ‘view from beneath’, from the perspective of the early communities to which it was written. This is even true, I think, of Revelation. Although the NT contains so many massive ideas, such glorious visions, it remains as an essentially world-forming, community enabling series of writings. I don’t think that this is where our difficulty arises.

    Much of our struggle today is within the framework of ideas and beliefs that came later and sought to bring definition and order to those writings. So many of the early writers worked philosophically to systematize the disparate biblical ideas. The first result of this was the formation of the abstract theology with which we have become so familiar. The theology of big ideas. The huge weakness of abstract theology is not just that we are stretching beyond our reach, it is the shift it produces in the viewpoint. Such thinking, perhaps inevitably, puts us over our subject. We now have, because of this, a view from above. More to the point, when such a shift happens unconsciously it tends to carry with it a raft of assumptions. So the kingdom of God becomes analogous to the empires with which we are familiar, until it becomes indistinguishable from them. God becomes King and we all know what kings are like, and so on.

    So the fabulous relationship between Jesus and his Father, and the elusive understanding of a third divine actor, becomes the Trinity. There! We have named it, it is ours now! And so proceeded centuries of debate, often quite forensic or at least relatively obsessed with the pathology that it seems to require. Until people like Moltmann come along and give the ‘orthodox’ something that they can all disagree with. But we miss the point by doing this. We miss the point that pathology is not the point, relationship is the point (thank you Moltmann!) We miss the point that the real trinity is not uncomfortable with the idea that humanity is now within divinity in the way that the doctrine is uncomfortable with this idea (for good neo-platonic reasons, no doubt). This is a problem that arises from a whole range of presumptions about both humanity and divinity. We miss the point, as you have made clear, that we know God through Jesus. Or in the very old question that I raised before, that the divinity of Christ tells us first what God is like, not what Jesus is.

    The foundation of your broader thesis, Roger, apparently lies deep in the drift that reached its first nadir in the Constantinian negotiation. And this, of course, was the context within which much of the substance of abstract theology was initiated. We are all aware of how the legacy of these presumptions remains with us. What could be more imperialistic, for example, than the shape of modern evangelical eschatology? The overarching control of the ages, the definition of supposed periods and the inevitability of the outcome are the story of an immutable and irresistable force operating, almost deistically, upon the human world. We’ve all witnessed the corrosive arguments between schools of eschatology, but I am puzzled that none of these seems to ask, what sort of God are we talking about here? What sort of God maps out human destiny in this way and from such a distance?

    The primary category within which we discuss the scriptures is that of ‘authority over’ rather than ‘truthfulness in’. The book stands in, as an understudy for a God who does not seem to want to play the part that has been written for him. And we forget that the very verse so often used to prove something about the authority of the Bible also tells us that the book is supposed to be ‘useful’, a tool in our hands and God’s. This is the shift of so much orthodox theology, we see everything ‘from above’, increasingly mechanistically, deeply in terms of cause and effect, and fundamentally through the aspiration for control. But we live, still, from beneath. And from time to time the gap becomes intolerable.

    Of course there is irony in the world of abstract theology too. Especially in the way that it has formed a shape of orthodoxy that has had its boundaries defined and made too rigid to ever grow or embrace development. We have a doctrine for everything… except the effects of the Enlightenment, we don’t, for example, have a view from above for science, for example. But we want one. Oh how we want one! Just listen to those boys go!

    Personally, I am quite comfortable with your detailed points. My instinctive way of dealing with them might colour those outlines in slightly differently. I would see kenarchy as God’s refusal to do two things. He refuses control and he refuses to abandon us. Both refusals, essentially and necessarily are unavoidable expressions of love, but only when taken together, and only when viewed from beneath.

    (Oh, and yes, this is the short response! Sorry.)

    • Chris: sometimes you leave me breathless, and that’s a good thing. You have the capacity to express so much of what I was thinking but so unable to articulate. I do better verbally. So thanks. As I read your short essay here I realize we are in a fabulous moment as the discomfort with the gap between what is below and what is above has become too great to be tolerated. And isn’t that true with all sorts of issues in our society – the 99% vs the 1% and income/wealth inequality, the way we do education (oh boy as a college prof I could go on and on with that one), the way we treat the planet and other species (no, I won’t go there, as that would be a very long topic). The top down viewpoint of control is no longer sustainable (never was, most of it was illusion anyway as humans are great at denial) so now we get to explore lots of new/old things. So lets get that kenarchy course going Roger – we all need to learn more about Jesus/God and how to give up power and truly love. And Chris – your last comment – the refusal to control and the refusal to abandon – absolutely right on. Maybe we should all spend time simply figuring out what that means in everyday life. c.

      • Absolutely! Glad you enjoyed it Cheryl. I did not want to go further because I feel that the next points demand better than I can give them just now. So I will just hint at them.

        If God refuses to control his world and refuses to abandon his world, what can he do? That God comes to be in his world? That God suffers with as well as for? (Again, thank you Jurgen) Emmanuel is not, I think, the story of God just calling in to somehow deposit Jesus’ ministry into an awkward history, and then going away again, and leaving us a book to remember him by.

        As I follow the critical realist and narrative realist debates it strikes me that so many possibilities emerge. For example, the great expectations of the end of exile, that a true son of David must return to the throne, but we see more than this, a second Adam installed at the right hand of God. In Christ, somehow, divinity and humanity united. (Without making any statement about adoptionism) The great hope that God would return to the temple, where we see, from Bethlehem to Pentecost, the coming of God to his domain, his people in his world. God with.

        If we look at the dynamics of the gospels and just explore the simple words, the comings and goings, for example, who came, who went, who else came, and where did he go? If we look at other couplets like emptying and filling and see where those take us. Until we reach the fulness? Until he fills?

        Not quite sure why Moltmann is so much on my mind in this, I really must go back and read him again. But I am also aware of another of his themes, the way in which God, in Christ, identifies with his world. And saying, along with others like Norman Kraus, that the cross is, for God, a monumental act of solidarity with creation.

        None of these dynamics sit well with the notions of absolute power, undeniable will, total control and certainly not with the motive force of modern eschatology.

  13. Very helpful, Chris, thank you! I love the idea that the Bible might be ‘an understudy for a God who does not seem to want to play the part that has been written for him’! Just so…

  14. Hi Roger, I like it, but I’m struggling to understand your point 4 – ‘If Jesus is fully revealing God, then God is the lamb carrying in himself the cost of intimacy with sinful human beings, rather than the traditional idea that Jesus is the sacrificial lamb providing access to the intimate side of a powerful sovereign God who has been offended by our rebellious behaviour and rejected us accordingly. ‘

    I’ve always understood it that Jesus was standing in for us and I’ve read your comments about kenotic pouring out love, but don’t quite understand how you understand forgiveness/redemption etc – and also how we can interpret the scriptures in this way?


    • Hi Phoebe,
      Thanks for the comment. Your question takes us to the heart of the matter from my perspective. It’s too important to attempt an answer simply as a reply to your comment and needs the full treatment of a blog post. I think it’s where we’ve got to at this stage in the outline work on the course, so I’ll make the next post on the subject over the next few days.

  15. I think i put this comment in the wrong place earlier, I see it fits here.

    An issue I would like to raise is again only a detail and in reality I end up even more in agreement with your overall conclusions. It’s to do with the impression I got that you contrast the new testament servant Jesus with the old testament sovereign supreme God.

    I’m interested to know where the view of God being the dominating king in the OT comes from.

    a) There are references to him being king and having a kingdom of course, but I think they are surprisingly few and tho they’re in key places (God’s reply to Samuel when the people asked for a king – 1 Sam 8; Baalam’s prophecy maybe – Numbers 23; David’s song – 1 Chron 29; lots of Psalms; twice in Job; Isa 6, and 43 onwards; the song of Darius – Dan 6; Zech 9 and 14; Malachi; and probably some Ive missed) they’re so little that you can hardly say God’s going on and on about it.

    b) Then there is the title sovereign lord, but that’s something given to him in prayer from us not something he imposes in prophecies or teaching or law. Other titles like creator, god, judge, shepherd etc seem to me to be far far stronger or at least as strong.

    c) So is it the wrath prophecies that have given the OT image of God such a negative tint ? But when I read them just looking for what exactly does make God so mad he’ll wreak/allow awful things – well I was astonished. Not worshipping him is of course part of it, but less than I expected. He is just not that self centred. Such a huge part is to do with bullying – people being mean to the little, the weak, the powerless, cheating on weights and measures and all the rest. And his solution – to hand the bullies over to even bigger bullies to get a taste of their own medicine.

    So has there been political manipulation and usurping of OT teaching too ?!!

    Hmmm …..

    This leads me to think that Jesus is the continuity of an extraordinarily restrained sovereignty. Domination is just not part of it. This makes me take things like the picture at the end of revelation, where he turns up to the wedding on a white charger with a sword coming out of his mouth, all the more seriously – it turned out he didn’t make empty threats, but he did leave it as long as possible in the hope we’d behave. Even there the next image is of the lamb and a slaughtered one at that ! Even the final judgement will not be based on anything arbitrary like human absolute monarchs can and do exercise, but will be letting us have the final consequences of our own choices. When God doesn’t play by the rules it’s only to offer grace, show mercy ! To me it seems that one of the few times that God asserts that he is king is when being described as King of Kings, so he will boss around those who have bossed others around. Sounds all right right to me. So the Almighty God might have been playing by kenarchic rules all along !

    Of course “king” is a very frustrating word search, I’ve waded through 2289 OT references, there are rather a lot of kings !

    I’m looking forward to reading the book properly myself. Thank you very much for your grace and insight, for the time you have taken to study and pray and listen to God and to his people.

    Yours in Christ, Liz.

  16. I’m new to this party, and so still playing catch-up. I am fully behind the idea of starting with the Gospels, for me our relegation of them to a ‘background text’ is a major problem. However, I am struggling with your points (ii) and (iii). I’m pretty sure some friends of mine would call them heretical, so I guess I am missing the point. (But then, they probably think I am heretical, so that may not be saying too much.) If Jesus is God and Man, then I do not see the logic that if Jesus were impelled by another (as in Mk 1:12), why that makes any statement about God being (or not being) all-powerful. Surely, the idea behind Phil 2:7 was that he did not come here as the all-powerful God, but emptied himself to become like us. So, I am failing to see the logic of points (ii) and (iii). For me they make no conclusive statement about God. At best they merely open up the possibility. Can you clarify this point, because I am not following it. Thanks.

  17. Thanks Ken, for exposing some of the key issues in this way. The core issue resides in the assumptions we make when we say that Jesus is God and Man. It has been assumed that simply because he is God, he must have a different relationship to power than human beings. But the whole implication of the incarnation from the perspective I am putting forward is the relationship to power manifest in Jesus has to be the same relationship to power as that of the God he incarnates. So ’emptying himself’ in the words of Philippian hymn don’t describe a difference between God and Jesus, but reveal to us the eternal attitude to power in God. So while he could have been otherwise, being God, Jesus reveals that the choice that God (and therefore Father, Son and Holy Spirit) made was a kenotic one. So rather than sovereign, dominating power being the source of the creation and afterwards of the incarnation, the source of all life and being is revealed as life-laying-down love.

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