Posted by: rogermitchell | May 23, 2012

what kenarchy means for our understanding of God (ii)

In attempting to provide a starting point on what kenarchy means for our understanding of God, the last post focused on what the God shown to us by the gospel testimony is NOT: not wholly other and separate from sinners, not all-powerful or omnipotent, not absolutely sovereign over all and not offended or needing appeasement. All these traditional descriptions appear to be imported or discovered from a different starting point to the gospel Jesus.

So this post moves on to provide a standpoint for what the God portrayed by Jesus positively IS. I suggest that the gospel account depicts a God who sows himself into the created, natural world in order to communicate, relate, live among and save the human race and the whole created order.

Once again using the simple approach of arguing from Jesus to God, and responding to the initial impact of Jesus in the four gospels, these things can be expanded as follows:

1. God sowing himself into the created, natural world:
Matthew and Luke describe Jesus as inseminated into Mary by the Holy Spirit. This appears to be the implication of “conceived by” (Mtt 1:20, Lk 1:31). Matthew points out that this fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy “They shall call his name Emmanuel … God with us” (Mtt 1:20). As Matthew’s preceding genealogy makes clear, Mary’s egg carries the genes of some very sinful, fallible humans.

2. God communicating:
The gospel writers describe God speaking to Joseph and Mary by the angel of the Lord and the angel Gabriel (Mtt 1:20-21, Lk 1:26), through John the Baptist to the crowds (Mk 1:2-8), via people inspired by the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:67) and above all through Jesus who John describes as God’s Word become flesh (Jn 1:1,14).

3. God relating with the human race:
Through the act of sowing himself into the human genealogy, or incarnation, God relates ontologically, which means ‘in his very being,’ to the human race. Matthew calls human beings “his people” (Mtt 1:21); Luke depicts Jesus as both the son of God (Lk 1:35) and the son of David (Lk 1:32) and in John, Jesus calls them “his own” or his “children” (Jn 1:11-12).

4. God living among us:
As we have already seen in (1) above, Matthew introduces Jesus as “God with us” Mtt 1:20). Mark describes him as the Son of God (Mk 1:11) present in their streets, homes and synagogues. Luke assigns him human throne, reign and kingdom (Lk 1:32-33) and while this is clearly a very different kind of governance to that of the Roman Caesar and his puppet rulers in Israel, its referents are clearly this worldly. When John’s disciples wanted to discover what it meant that he was the son and lamb of God, he asked them to stay with him and see for themselves (Jn 1:34-39).

5. God working to save the human race and the whole creation. It is because the word salvation has been so associated with appeasing God’s supposed anger over his offended sovereignty, that it is a struggle at first to understand how big salvation is in gospel terms. Here in the initial narratives it includes saving people from their sins (Mtt 1:21), declaring the possibility of a new political order (Mk 1:15), releasing people from evil spirits (Mk 1:23-27, caring for and healing the sick (Mk 1:20, 34), scattering the proud, deposing the mighty, elevating the humble, feeding the hungry and dispossessing the rich (Lk 1:51-53).

Clearly kenarchy introduces a very different paradigm for understanding God than our more familiar one. This has massive implications for our theology of history, the future (eschatology), salvation (soteriology) and the Holy Spirit (pneumatology). It reconfigures the way we understand ourselves as the created image of God and the corporate outworking of human life in the world in terms of ecclesiology, missiology, politics, economics and ecology. Understanding these implications and their practical applications in daily life will shape the content of the Kenarchy Course as it develops.



  1. Okay Roger. I confess I have not read your book yet. It sits on the table waiting. I am about 2 weeks away from completing my thesis so many things wait. That means, I’ve likely missed something. I need some of your first statements expanded a bit. What do you mean by: “not all-powerful or omnipotent, not absolutely sovereign over all”? Those seem to be, to me, fundamental aspects of how we have defined God for quite a long time. I’m open to other possibilities but I think I need a bit more of an explanation. c.

    • These are the things that the Kenarchy Course will have to look at! But the statements are simply those from the previous post where they seemed to be the implications of arguing from Jesus to God. So a God who Jesus reveals has clearly limited himself by choice not to operate in these categories. We might want to say that to be God he COULD have behaved in these ways, but his choice of being, as revealed in the gospel Jesus, cannot be described like that for the reasons given in the previous post.

      • Okay. Chris, your comments here are helpful too. I think the issue for me was what appeared to be a large and unexplained leap. I felt that the statements made would be difficult for some readers of the blog and so wanted a bit of expansion on them. I like your last paragraph on this Chris. It reminds me of when I have read Ivan Illich. He wrote these very slim essays, very prophetic, and then would make some huge leaps in them to conclusions of his thinking. And I, as the reader, was always left going ‘wait, hold on, how did you get from point A to point B? A wee map would be helpful even if it is sketchy.’ And the terrible thing, the most frustrating thing was that his conclusions were always so intriguing, so important. I think this is the same kind of issue. We’ve had a particular way of understanding God. It has been drummed into many of us and we do not question it much unless our life experience has led us to do so, unless, for some reason we have found our assumptions to be inadequate. I’m not fussed much about shifting views of God – that’s pretty needed right now. But I like a wee road map so I can understand the steps to the conclusion. I realize the course may do this. But I think your answer Roger is helpful. Jesus chose to reveal himself and God in particular ways and that way included a lot of ‘nots’ on things we have learned to accept without question. c.

      • We are such curious creatures! It is not that a surprising silence on a point (like the virgin birth not being linked to divinity by its narrators) is tantamount to thinking that we must not think that way, as if God were a strict and patristic teacher who lets us know that there is a clue but we are not allowed to follow it. Rather it is interesting to be aware of those little silences, especially when they occur over something that we think should be important, and allow them to simplify us and even enable us to make leaps of our own. After all, without Isaiah 7, nobody would have associated a virgin birth with an Immanuel event.

  2. Realizing that you are keen on simplicity, let’s use this intention deliberately. After all, our task is to distil the essence of something, not define a system for everything.

    The origins of our conversations in the song in Philippians is already an example of using such simplicity to realize what the point is. For most children of the early fathers (which is most of us) this passage inspires huge questions of advanced christology, what does this say about Christ’s pre-existence, what was the fulness of which Jesus emptied himself? And so on. The focus switches away, almost immediately, from the point of the song. He came, became low, embraced our limitation and identified with our state to the extent where he was as dependent upon the vindication of the Father as we are. This is what interests the writer and, dare I say it, even with the later christological lenses, it is still primarily focussed on the humanity and commonality of Jesus, what he became rather than what he might have been before. This is the lens that the passage gives to us.

    The simplicity of Matthew and Luke is that the birth of Jesus is about God’s coming, being once again with Israel (and through that purpose with humanity). This, for Matthew and Luke, is the return of the Lord. They do not see it as did some church fathers, and indeed most moderns, as a defining moment in the divinity of Christ. This potential is not recognized (although Wright argues that it is presumed). So the fathers could wrestle with the implications of Jesus’ Y chromosome all they liked. This was of no interest to the gospels. They embraced, passionately, that somehow, in Jesus, God was coming back. This was the answer to the biggest eschatological question Israel had, the obvious and devastating absence of God.

    With these examples, and in common with the hermeneutic principles that influence us all today, we see that our understanding of God is largely dependent upon what questions or hopes or fears lie behind the narrative. Just as the hermeneutic approach that Martin is using in his discussion of Revelation depends upon which question is being answered. Is John’s back-story, “OK, I know I am writing the last book of the Bible, so let’s skip ahead to find out how the human story ends and how it all works out when God takes over”, like some really bad Hollywood script that has lost its own plot. Or is it answering a far more authentic and historical question, “Oh God! You see what is happening to us. What is going on? Where are you Lord?”

    So, in your list of things that describe God in the light of kenarchy, we can embrace the broad human story and do this through the particularity of Israel’s eschatological hope. For Israel the issue is the absence of God, that he has abandoned her to the nations, it is his silence and the lament of the departed prophets, it is the absence of a Davidic king upon the throne and a God in his temple. These huge losses, always seen by Israel as a loss to Israel, rarely as a loss to God, rarely considering the suffering of God, almost just in terms of a sort of degraded privilege, an offended entitlement, are worked out in the hope that says ‘One day, God will return in judgment and we will be vindicated’ only to discover that when God does return he has something much bigger in mind than they had hoped for. The Son of God (a royal title not a description of divinity) returns to the throne not in Jerusalem’s palace but at the right hand of the Father, YHWH returns not to the temple in Jerusalem but to the original temple of creation.

    I mentioned Moltmann previously and he is relevant still. In his treatment of the Trinity the emphasis is upon the way its members live in and for and through each other (perichoresis). The point at which this touches a kenarchic view is that it implies a deep shift in the nature of a relationship that is defining not just for God or within the deity but in the relationship between the divine and creation. It describes a relationship between subjects, not between a subject and objects. Nearly all of the ‘view from above’ lenses portray everything from creation through redemption and all eschatology as if a subject (God) and an object (creation) were in view. The deep shift is that in the model that you are presenting this changes things almost enough to restore the subject/subject relationship. By becoming as us, in Immanuel, God rejects the separation, the world is not an object because he becomes a participant in its dilemma. Hence Moltmann can write of this relationship in terms of The Crucified God, not as it relates to a particular atonement theory but as it relates to the core issue, the coming of God, why he comes, how he comes. (Which is why I suggested that really simple ideas are useful and the view from beneath so important, just looking at couplets like ‘coming’ and ‘going’.)

    I sometimes wonder, Roger, how you handled the tension between your prophetic gift and inclination (and its language and ways of thinking) and the modes of thinking and discourse needed for your PhD! That must have been a very conscious thing. Either that or you did this to some extent but passed the problem on to your assessors, in which case… Wow! I mention this out of sympathy with Cheryl’s question above. A certain agility is needed to go from those few verses you quoted to the keynote statements you make here about omnipotence or otherwise. More than agility, perhaps, quite a leap in fact. I don’t have a difficulty with this, or the other points, largely because for me they were already wrapped up in the viewpoint issue. Omnipotence is a ‘view from above’ issue. God’s refusal to control and refusal to abandon are my ‘view from beneath’ version so any real problems with a question about omnipotence pretty much gets sidestepped. In this sense the issue is not the abstract attribute of divinity but the behaviour, the action, of God. But I have no idea if this will be of any help to Cheryl.

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