Functional Kenotic Christology
Another major theme running through USTO is the theological significance of the incarnation. According to USTO, the Holy Spirit’s work in the incarnation and in the life of Jesus is a parallel or analogy for how he continues to work in ongoing creation. As the Nicene Creed says, the Holy Spirit is “the Lord and giver of life.”
A Bible-believing Reformed Christian will have no trouble with the Nicene Creed’s confession of the Holy Spirit. He is the giver of life. The Bible teaches that this is true for spiritual life (1 Cor. 12:3) as well as for physical life (Ps. 104:30).
However, USTO works that out in ways that are not only wrong, but verging on heretical. The error is subtle and not easily discerned. Here are some quotes to illustrate the teaching I’m concerned about here:
Jesus was fully and authentically human because of the energizing and enabling work of the Spirit. (25)
Jesus lived a perfect life of obedience to the Father because he was enabled to freely and perfectly rely on the Spirit’s power to lead a humble, obedient life…In short, Jesus was sustained by the Spirit, perfected by the Spirit, served the Father’s purposes by the Spirit, lived, died, and lived again through the Spirit. (26)
Instead, what is most remarkable about Jesus is that he lived as an embodied person in perfect relationship with the Father, always enabled by the Spirit. Moreover, he was sustained by the Spirit in his relationships with other persons and all of creation. (600-601)
All Jesus’ miracles were performed through the power of the Spirit. (601)
And Jesus’ humanity is the ultimate model from which we can learn by the Spirit’s power to exercise our capacities as means through which God is restoring all of creation. (605)
There are many more such quotes from the book – as I said, it’s an important theme strung from start to finish.
The emphasis is on Jesus as a human being empowered by the Holy Spirit to do amazing things, including obeying God fully. This parallels what creation can do in cooperation with the Holy Spirit – continue its evolutionary development. It also illustrates what it means to bear the image of God as human beings.
This teaching has a name: functional kenotic Christology (FKC). In God’s providence, while I was reading USTO, I was also reading Stephen J. Wellum’s God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ. Wellum identifies FKC as a contemporary challenge to orthodox Christology. FKC is entrenched in “evangelical” theology; some of its advocates include well-known names like William Craig, J.P. Moreland, and Millard Erickson. According to Wellum, FKC is sometimes associated with “Spirit-Christology” and it’s here that you find mention of Colin Gunton. Gunton was a British theologian whose work is cited extensively in USTO, including in the portions speaking about Jesus’ reliance upon the Holy Spirit.
Let me explain a little more about FKC. FKC does not deny the divinity of the Son of God. It teaches that when the Son of God took on a human nature, his divine attributes became latent. They were fully there, but not being used. The Son of God chose to live his incarnate life within the bounds of his human nature, including all of its limitations. This is the “kenotic” element of FKC. “Kenosis” is the theological term derived from the Greek used in Philippians 2:7 to refer to Christ emptying himself. Wellum explains further:
Thus when it comes to how Jesus has supernatural knowledge and exercises supernatural power in his miracles, FKC insists that Jesus does so, not by the use of his divine attributes, but by the power of the Spirit. Thus, in all of the incarnate Son’s actions, even actions traditionally viewed as divine actions (such as his miracles), Jesus performs them by the Spirit, in a way similar to other Spirit-empowered men and parallel to the Spirit’s work in us. This is why Jesus can serve as our example, as he shows us how to live our lives in dependence on the Spirit – although he is the paradigm, interpreted more quantitatively than qualitatively. (God the Son Incarnate, 383).
The “functional” element of FKC comes from the manner in which this teaching addresses the work that Jesus did.
Debates about the doctrine of the person of Christ raged on through the early church. However, eventually the church adopted what’s known as the Chalcedonian Definition. Chalcedon is not officially part of our Reformed creeds and confessions, but the content of Chalcedon is found in both the Athanasian Creed (articles 29-37) and the Belgic Confession (articles 18 and 19). Advocates of FKC affirm Chalcedon formally, but as Wellum points out, “they depart from it at significant points” (Wellum, 396). This is particularly in regard to how they define “person,” their equating “person” with “soul,” and in their endorsement of the idea that the incarnate Son of God has only one will (monothelitism).
Wellum offers an extensive critique of FKC. I’ll just briefly summarize it – interested readers should go and check it out for themselves. He notes two main problems.
First, FKC does not readily account for what the Bible says about the divinity of Christ in his earthly life and ministry. The works Jesus does are “ultimately acts identified with Yahweh” (Wellum, 406). If you survey texts like John 5:16-30, Col. 1:17, and Heb. 1:3, it is clear that “in his state of humiliation, the Son continues to exercise his divine attributes as the Son in relation to and united with the Father and the Spirit” (Wellum 406).
Second, FKC sounds Trinitarian enough (and so does USTO), but in reality it fails to do justice to the Trinity, especially in developing Father-Son-Spirit relations. If the incarnate Son never uses his divine attributes, then his actions on earth were either purely human, or they are the actions of the Holy Spirit. Where there are actions surpassing what normal humans can do, the Son of God appears to be merely passive in his own actions. Moreover, the work of the Father in all of this is ignored. Wellum writes, “…it is not enough to focus simply on the Son-Spirit relations; we must also account for John’s Gospel, for example, which stresses predominantly the Father-Son relations” (408).
FKC is not a theological peccadillo. This is a major concern. Most readers of USTO are not going to have enough theological training to discern it. USTO makes it sound plausible – and they have some Bible texts that apparently support their claims. Moreover, it is a central part of their effort to integrate evolution with biblical teaching. It has sometimes been said that acceptance of evolutionary theory requires an overhaul of every area of theology. The presence of FKC in USTO illustrates that this overhaul is underway.