Dorner against Kenotic Christology, in a nutshell
May 1, 2015
I have been reading a lot of Isaak Dorner lately. In my estimation, he is easily the greatest dogmatic theologian between Schleiermacher and Barth. Most interestingly for me, Dorner not only anticipates Barth but provides significant doctrinal formulations that Barth would borrow, especially for the doctrine of God in CD II.1. I have been reading Dorner’s third essay on divine immutability, and I frequently thought I was reading Barth.
Dorner reworks immutability in a way that is strikingly similar to Barth, in order to account for God’s “livingness,” both a se and in relation to the world. Claude Welch translates Lebendigkeit as “livingness” in the volume, God and Incarnation in Mid-Nineteenth Century German Theology, but Robert R. Williams translates it as “vitality” in the Fortress Press edition, which otherwise follows Welch’s translation. I prefer “livingness,” even if it makes for awkward English.
Although his expertise is spread across the whole range of theological loci, Dorner specialized in the doctrine of Christ, through the release of the multi-volume, Entwicklungsgeschichte der Lehre von der Person Christi, published in English as The History of the Doctrine of the Person of Christ. He would later write a multi-volume systematic theology. As is well-known, the nineteenth century was the century of Christ’s humanity, for good or ill. Theologians worked diligently to account for the humanity of Christ, in dialogue with the philosophical and historical interests of the day. One such theologian was Gottfried Thomasius, who used the κένωσις (self-emptying) of Jesus Christ as the basis for reconstructing how the divine and human relate in the person of Christ. Dorner opposed Thomasius. Since Dorner is very difficult to read, it is not easy to find a snippet for blogging purposes, but here is a nice summary by Dorner of his objection to Kenotic Christology:
The point must be this, that instead of God’s reducing himself to mere potence for the sake of the world and his being changed into it, it is rather the actual divine perfection itself and nothing less (and indeed as perennially and immovably affirming itself) which is to be apprehended as the potence for the world. The whole historical life of God in the world takes place, not at the expense of the eternal perfection of God himself, but precisely by virtue of this permanent perfection. Only so does his eternal freedom also remain in its place vis-à-vis the never absolutely closed natural order.
… How could it be supposed to be true and worthy of God that Christianity should have conquered the heathen religions and philosophies by a piece of the doctrine that is at home in the pantheistic schools and religions, by the doctrine of a God who is potential, growing and only gradually working up to self-consciousness or to spiritual actuality in general? If this were the foundation of the chief objective Christian truth, then heathenism, in the myths of the God who sacrifices himself on behalf of the world, would contain more prophecy of Christ than the Old Testament; to them especially the idea is not foreign, that God has thus given and sacrificed himself on behalf of the world. Against such ideas, the Old Testament sets with utter seriousness the inviolable majesty and holiness of God, which is not even violated in love.
[Isaak August Dorner, “The Dogmatic Concept of the Immutability of God,” in God and Incarnation in Mid-Nineteenth Century German Theology (Oxford University Press, 1965), 144-145]
There you have it, Dorner against Thomasius in a nutshell. Though Dorner is not addressing Thomasius here but, rather, Hegelian impulses more generally in theology. You can also see, in the second paragraph, how Dorner is rebuking proto process theologies, even though Dorner is sometimes reckoned as a forebear of process theology because of his “dynamic” account of God’s interaction with the world (through our prayers for example). Throughout his creative proposals for rethinking immutability, Dorner never falters in upholding the aseity and perfection of God. Thomists would not be satisfied, I am sure.
By the way, there is not a single, uniform account of Kenotic Christology. From what I’ve read, Thomasius moderates his position later in his career. And then we have later generations who would offer their own accounts, as in P. T. Forsyth’s The Person and Place of Christ (1909), which may or may not be as susceptible to Dorner’s criticism.
Image: Isaak August Dorner – Portrait Collection of Berlin university teachers, Historical Collections of the University Library