God,  Philosophical Theology

Kenosis: Why God Can’t Choose to Lose His Powers

According to some versions of the doctrine of kenosis, God, the Son, suspended the use of some of his divine powers while he walked the earth. The doctrine is generally taken to mean that Jesus voluntarily suspended the use of some of his powers while he walked the earth. His powers were not lessened in any way and, like a powerful army during peacetime, he could use them at any moment.

However, according to other versions of kenosis, the doctrine implies that one divine power is the power to give up some powers for some time. On this view, Jesus not only restricts his use of some powers while on earth, but he could not use them even if he wanted to. I’ll call this view the complete kenosis view. 

In the following I will argue that nothing that has any power has some other power to give it up and reacquire it. If so, then the complete kenosis view is false.

If S has power, P, then S can choose not to use P in order to do some action, A. But can S choose not to have P? And if she can, can she get rid of P at t1 and then re-aquire it at t2?

Some of the powers of S are not essential to S. She does not have to have those powers in order to exist nor does she have to have those powers in order to be the kind of thing she is. It is often argued that some powers are essential to some beings. God, for example, has the power of omnipotence essentially. If he did not have omnipotence, he would not be God. If there are no essential properties of any being, then God could still be God without omnipotence. Not much rests on this distinction since I want to suggest that whether or not God has his attributes essentially or not he cannot have an additional power to remove them at will and reinstate them later.

Consider me and my mundane powers. I have the non-essential power to lift my pen. The power to lift my pen is not essential to my existence (I could exist without both arms) nor is it essential to me being a human being (there are some human beings who cannot lift pens). Non-essential powers like this one can be lost or never had. If I had been born paralyzed I would not have the power to lift a pen.

The question is: could I have some power to remove and reinstate my power to lift my pen? I could be paralyzed for a time and then cured. The power would have been genuinely lost and then reinstated. Perhaps I take some drug that suspends the use of my limbs for some period of time. During that time I would not be able to lift my pen. By taking the drug I am exercising some power in order to temporarily limit one or all of my other powers. It is either the case that I have temporarily given up (or lost) my power to lift my pen or I haven’t (either because I could have lifted it if I really tried or because I did not lose the power but only temporarily suspended its use). In both cases I could lose that power and regain that power but only by using some other power to do so. The problem is that the power to lose and regain my pen-lifting power is a power I do not have.

Suppose I actually removed my power to lift my pen. I did not have the power during the 20 minutes I was under the drug. This sounds right. It seems for any power I have I could use some other power to remove my ability to use that power either temporarily or permanently (depending on the strength of the drug). However, the power to remove another power, in this case, is not a power I have. The power lies in the drug I take. The chemical interaction with my body that restricts my use of my arm is dependent on the power of the drug. I have no power to remove another power and reinstate it.

What about paralysis? Paralysis is some loss of function in the body due to a breaking of the body’s system. A spinal cord injury often results in paralysis. In this case some part of me that is supposed to do something fails to do it. I can restrict my own powers in this way only by damaging myself. In damaging myself I am losing  some power or other. Perhaps, then, after some time my powers return. I am healed of the injury and return to full functionality.

Would this analogy provide us some insight to kenosis? Perhaps God causes himself some injury–the incarnation–which temporarily restricts his power only to have that power returned to him through some form of healing process–the resurrection. It is not clear that this would work. First, it appears inconsistent with a perfect being to make himself imperfect. Paralysis entails some self-inflicted damage. If a perfect being were to make himself imperfect, then he would cease to meet the requirements of the substitutionary sacrifice for which he was sent. After all, it is only a perfect sacrifice that is able to atone for our sins.

So, I can’t see how anything with a set of powers could have, among that set of powers, the power to remove any power at t1 and then reinstate the power at t2.

Finally, for God to remove one of his powers he must have some other power by which he can remove and reinstate powers. But the power to lose a power must also be a power he has (not a power external to him). If he has such a power it must be a power with sufficient strength to remove omnipotence and then, at a later time, reinstate omnipotence. But surely such a power is not an additional power beyond omnipotence since omnipotence means maximal power. If there was an additional power, then that power would automatically be included within omnipotence.

I conclude, therefore that the complete kenosis view is false.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.