Dorner against Kenotic Christology, in a nutshell

Isaak August Dorner - Portrait Collection Berlin university teachers, Historical Collections of the University Library

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



  1. I understand the need to emphasize God’s immutability and majesty, but it seems to me that Christ challenges the way we think about the attributes of God. Over and over again in the Bible, people expect God to be in the earthquake and the flames. Instead He is in a tiny whisper, in a tiny baby, and on the cross. I worry that when the attributes of God are considered outside of the context of the incarnate, crucified, and risen Lord, God’s majesty and holiness is nothing other than our own personal concepts of majesty and holiness (not so different from the notions of majesty in other religions). Does that not become a kind of idolatry? Christ as man should also transform the way in which we think of ourselves with respect to God and our neighbor. I do though understand the danger of clinging to one of the 19th century Kenotic Christologies. Kierkegaard, for example, sometimes emphasizes the human over the divine (there are references to Kenosis in his works and journals).

    • Both “sides” are expressed in Scripture. Dorner and Barth are doing their best to allow the perfections of freedom (“majesty and holiness”) to be expressed in coherence with the perfections of love, and vice versa — not an easy task. Barth in particular is anxious to make sure that we are not worshiping a pure Potentate with only accidental relation to the eternal Lamb. So, Kierkegaard’s concern is not far from Barth’s mind.

  2. Dorner is so great — really among the best of the latter half of the century.

    FWIW, I’ve identified no fewer than five distinct approaches to kenotic Christology and am in the process of outlining a book!

  3. I started reading Donald Bloesch’s Essentials of Evangelical Theology, and I have to admit that his doctrine of God is in some ways hard to grasp for someone who was previously ingrained with classic theist concepts (immutability, divine foreknowledge, predestination).

    • I need to revisit Bloesch. From what I remember, he follows Barth and Torrance closely, so it makes sense that you are picking-up on his more modern conception of God, which is in fact close to evangelical piety in a good way.

  4. I don’t have tons of time to comment at the moment (grilling steak) but its important to keep in mind that the kenotic passages in Phillipians aren’t isolated but occur within the context of Christ taking the form of a servant and not an abstract metaphysical or spiritual emptying.

  5. Hey, Kevin. I trust you’re well.

    I dipped into Dorner this past spring as well. I sometimes wondered if he wasn’t leaning toward repristination at times, but I thoroughly enjoyed his so-called “mediating” position, not least his tenacity toward a “bond of unity” with respect to the person and work of Christ (divine reconciliation), the church and her word and sacraments in light of that mediating approach.

    In the excerpt you quote above, I see Dorner benefitting from one of Schleiermacher’s gifts to modern theology: the way forward between the god of Aristotle and the god of Spinoza—the causality and intentionality of the living God (the word living—in disticntion to personal—remains a constant refrain in S.’s On Religion) whose very life is, as Dorner writes above, “itself and nothing less . . . to be apprehended as the potence for the world.”

    That said, there’s no doubt S. leaves me confused in his ambiguity toward panentheism.

    • I like that — seeing Schleiermacher as steering between Aristotle and Spinoza — and then maybe Dorner is doing the work of keeping S’s theological advance away from panentheism. In fact, both Martensen and Dorner are representative of mediating theology’s concern to keep the good in Schleiermacher and weed-out the bad.

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