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Asymmetrical assumption: Why Lutheran christology does not lead to kenoticism or divine passibility

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 November 2019

Stephen R. Holmes
University of St Andrews, St Mary's College, St Andrews KY16 9JU
E-mail address:


It has been commonplace for over a century to argue that the distinctively Lutheran form of the communicatio idiomatum leads naturally to kenotic christology, divine passibility, or both. Although this argument has been generally accepted as a historical claim, has also been advanced repeatedly as a criticism of ‘classical theism’ and has featured significantly in almost all recent defences of divine passibility, I argue that it does not work: the Lutheran scholastics had ample resources drawn from nothing more than ecumenical trinitarian and christological dogma to defend their denial of the genus tapeinoticum. I argue further that this defence, if right, undermines a remarkably wide series of proposals in contemporary systematic theology.

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1 Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics [hereafter CD], 13 vols, ed. Torrance, T. F. and Bromiley, G. W. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956–74), I/1, p. xivGoogle Scholar.

2 See e.g. Francisco Turretino, Institutio Theologiae Elencticae, 3 vols (Edinburgh: John D. Lowe, 1847), vol. 2; XIII.8.xii (p. 286): ‘Quia si propter Unionem proprietates divinae communicatae sunt Carni, Ergo vicissim proprietates Carnis debuerunt communicari Logoi quia unio est reciproca …’ The second section of this essay will be mainly concerned with Lutheran responses to this argument.

3 Dorner, Isaak A., History of the Development of the Doctrine of the Person of Christ, trans. Simon, D.W. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1866), ii/2, p. 427Google Scholar.

4 Thomasius, Gottfried, Beiträge zur kirchlichen Christologie (Addend auss der ZPK) (Erlangen: Theodor Bläsing, 1845)Google Scholar. This is a republication with addenda of the two original articles; see pp. 97–104 for the development of the theory along the lines Dorner sketched out, and p. 63 for an explicit reference to the relevant part of Dorner's first edition. On Thomasius’ christology see Law, David R., ‘Le kenotisme luthérien et anglican: les christologies de Gottfried Thomasius et Frank Weston’, Études Theologiques et Religieuses 89 (2014), pp. 313–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Dorner, History, ii/2, p. 427. This rather remarkable mea culpa appears not to have been widely noticed in the literature.

6 See Dorner, I. A., A System of Christian Doctrine, trans. Cave, Alfred (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1880), vol. 1, pp. 412ffGoogle Scholar.; and Dorner, I. A., Divine Immutability: A Critical Reconsideration, trans. Williams, R. R. and Welch, Claude (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994)Google Scholar. For a fine account of this theme in Dorner, see Norgate, Jonathan, Isaak A. Dorner: The Triune God and the Gospel of Salvation (London: T&T Clark, 2009), pp. 1052Google Scholar. Other useful secondary treatments include: Williams, Robert R., ‘I. A. Dorner: The Ethical Immutability of God’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 54 (1986), pp. 721–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sherman, Robert, ‘Isaak August Dorner on Divine Immutability: A Missing Link between Schleiermacher and Barth’, Journal of Religion 77 (1997), pp. 380401CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For two different genealogies that downplay Schleiermacher but nevertheless do not invalidate my point about this being a nineteenth-century concern, see Brown, Robert E., ‘Schelling and Dorner on Divine Immutability’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 52 (1985), pp. 237–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Malysz, Piotr J., ‘Hegel's Conception of God and its Application by Isaak Dorner to the Problem of Divine Immutability’, Pro Ecclesia 15 (2006), pp. 448–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Dorner, History, pp. 177–92, 198–208.

8 Ibid., pp. 281–300.


9 Law, David R., ‘Luther's Legacy and the Origins of Kenotic Christology’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 93 (2017), pp. 4168CrossRefGoogle Scholar, suggests Sartorius, rather than Dorner, as the key influence for Thomasius, relying on a footnote in which the latter highlights the work of the former. As Law notes, Breidert finds the identification of Sartorius as an early kenoticist implausible (Breidert, M., Die kenotische Christologie des 19. Jahrhunderts (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1977), p. 39Google Scholar, which is cited in Law, ‘Luther's Legacy’, p. 65, n. 49). It is of course possible that Thomasius found inspiration in a misreading of Sartorius, whose work (on Law's telling) is not always completely consistent. All that said, Law's essay begins and ends with assertions that kenotic christology finds its origins in Luther, so he is not opposed to the historical line I am developing here, regardless of any difference over influences on Thomasius.

10 Thomasius, Gottfried, Das Bekenntnis der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche in der Konsequenz seines Prinzips (Nuremberg: A. Recknagel, 1848)Google Scholar.

11 To take only a sample: Hall, Francis J., The Kenotic Theory: Considered with Particular Reference to its Anglican Forms and Arguments (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1898), pp. 1315Google Scholar; Bensow, Oscar, Die Lehre von der Kenose (Leipzig: A. Deichert, 1903), pp. 1528 and 42–52Google Scholar; Lawton, John Stewart, Conflict in Christology: A Study of British and American Christology from 1889–1914 (London: SPCK, 1947), p. 119Google Scholar; Dawe, Donald G., ‘A Fresh Look at the Kenotic Christologies’, Scottish Journal of Theology 15 (1962), p. 341CrossRefGoogle Scholar; M. Breidert, Kenotische Christologie, pp. 19–23; Brown, David, Divine Humanity: Kenosis and the Construction of a Christian Theology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011), pp. 27–9Google Scholar; Law, David R., ‘Kenotic Christology’, in Fergusson, David (ed.), The Blackwell Companion to Nineteenth-Century Theology (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), pp. 253–5Google Scholar.

12 Discussing Chemnitz and his followers, Dorner comments, tantalisingly, that they taught ‘[t]he communication of the natures to each other; in this case, the communication to the divine nature was usually omitted’ (Dorner, History, ii/2, p. 287; emphasis added). He gives no reference, and I have not been able to discover to whom he might have been referring, but the qualification suggests that he was aware of at least one early modern Lutheran who proposed the genus tapeinoticum. Welch raises the question as to why this issue did not become pressing earlier, and suggests that the nineteenth-century focus on christology is sufficient answer; I am not sure that this is adequate, as there had been previous moments of extensive focus on christology within Lutheran dogmatics, not least the Schwabian debates with Chemnitz, and the Giessen-Tübingen debate already mentioned. God and Incarnation in Mid- Nineteenth- Century German Theology, by Thomasius, I. A. Dorner, and A. E. Biedermann, ed. and trans Welch, Claude (New York: OUP, 1965), pp. 69Google Scholar.

13 The seventeenth-century Lutheran theologians (on both the Tübingen and Giessen sides) had argued for a kenosis of the logos ensarkos, which generally amounted to the voluntary hiding (Tübingen) or shedding (Giessen; again, the word ‘kenosis’ was used) of the majestic attributes conferred on the human nature by the divine nature. As Mark Elliott puts it: ‘[b]oth sides were in agreement that the subjectum quo of kenosis is the Person, but the subjectum quod is the exalted humanity of the incarnation … Seventeenth-century Lutherans would hardly have thought that the Logos as such could lose any of his divine properties.’ Elliott, M. W., ‘Christology in the Seventeenth Century’, in Murphy, Francesca A. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Christology (Oxford: OUP, 2015), p. 304Google Scholar.

14 For this in Thomasius himself, see Thomasius, Gottfried, Christi Person und Werk: Darstellung der evangelisch-lutherischen Dogmatik, 3 vols (Erlangen: Blasig, 1856–63), vol. 1, pp. 200–8Google Scholar.

15 Mozley, J. K., The Impassibility of God: A Survey of Christian Thought (Cambridge: CUP, 1926)Google Scholar and Brasnett, Bertrand R., The Suffering of the Impassible God (London: SPCK, 1928)Google Scholar. Alfred North Whitehead also argued for divine passibility around this time (see e.g. the famous description of God as a ‘fellow sufferer who understands’ in his Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, corrected edn. (New York: Free Press, 1978 [1929]), p. 351). Whitehead made no reference to Luther, and so is not very relevant for my ongoing argument; his entire programme, however, depended on suggesting a Platonic infection of Christian theology, and so he does exemplify at least one point of my reconstruction.

16 Goetz, Ronald, ‘The Suffering God: The Rise of a New Orthodoxy’, Christian Century 103 (1986), p. 385Google Scholar, uses this phrase; Fiddes, Paul S., The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988)Google Scholar comments similarly of ‘academic circles’ that ‘the idea that God suffers hardly needs to be argued for any longer’ (p. 1).

17 Mozley, Impassibility, pp. 121–3.

18 Ibid., pp. 123–5.


19 On the theopaschites and the origin of the formula, see McGuckin, J. A., ‘The “Theopaschite Confession” (Text and Historical Context): A Study in the Cyrillic Re-interpretation of Chalcedon’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 35 (1984), pp. 239–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Brian Lugioyo, ‘Martin Luther's Eucharistic Christology’, in Murphy, Oxford Handbook of Christology, pp. 267–83. As Congar points out, one of the particular problems is that, in the German works, Luther uses Wesen to mean both ‘nature’ and ‘person’, introducing inevitable ambiguity and confusion. Congar, Yves M.-J., ‘Regards et réflexions sur la christologie de Luther’, in Grillmeier, Aloys und Bacht, Heinrich (eds), Das Konzil von Chalkedon: Geschichte und Gegenwart, vol. 3 (Würzburg: Echter-Verlag Wuurzburg, 1959), p. 482Google Scholar.

21 Lugioyo, ‘Martin Luther's Eucharistic Christology’, p. 278; Ngien, Dennis, ‘Chalcedonian Christology and Beyond: Luther's Understanding of the Communicatio Idiomatum’, Heythrop Journal 45 (2004), pp. 5468CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ngien, , The Suffering of God According to Martin Luther's ‘Theologia Crucis’ (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2005)Google Scholar; Jenson, Robert W., ‘Christ in the Trinity: The Communicatio Idiomatum’, in Holmes, Stephen R. and Rae, Murray A. (eds), The Person of Christ (London: T&T Clark International, 2005), p. 66Google Scholar; Weinandy, Thomas G., Does God Change? The Word's Becoming in the Incarnation (Still River, MA: St Bede's Publications, 1985), pp. 104–8Google Scholar.

22 See particularly the reference to the Schwabach Articles in Ngien, ‘Chalcedonian Christology’, p. 56.

23 Dorner, History, ii/2, pp. 281–307.

24 See e.g. the 1528 Confession Concerning Christ's Supper.

25 Weinandy, Does God Change?, pp. 103–4; cf. Congar, ‘Regards et réflexions’, pp. 477-8.

26 Zachhuber, Johannes, Luther's Christological Legacy: Christocentrism and the Chalcedonian Tradition (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2017), p. 47Google Scholar.

27 Ibid., pp. 100–1.


28 Thomasius, Beiträge, pp. 31ff.

29 Welch suggests he sees it as ‘the intention and direction of the Lutheran Christological development’ (God and Incarnation, p. 27).

30 He references many authors who did address the issue in the six decades before he wrote; the only two whose memory has generally survived are Horace Bushnell and William Temple. Mozley, Impassibility, pp. 140–66.

31 Ibid., p. 129.


32 Ibid., pp. 130–9.


33 Ibid., p. 177.


34 ‘Ludwig Feuerbach’ (identified as an extract from lectures given in 1920) in Barth, Karl, Theology and Church: Selected Shorter Writings 1920–1928, trans. Smith, Louise Pettibone (London: SCM Press, 1962), pp. 217–37Google Scholar; and Barth, , Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century: Its Background and History, trans. Cozens, Brian and Bowden, John (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), pp. 520–6Google Scholar.

35 In the 1920 text, unsurprisingly, Barth also notes Feuerbach's usefulness to ‘the workers’ socialist movement’. Barth, ‘Ludwig Feuerbach’, p. 233.

36 These points tend to be most emphatic when Jüngel is discussing Feuerbach, Nietzsche and the death of God theologians; see e.g. “Deus qualem Paulus creavit, Dei negatio” Zur Denkbarkeit Gottes bei Ludwig Fueuerbach und Friedrich Nietzsche. Eine Beobachtung’, Nietzsche-Studien 1 (1972), pp. 286–96Google Scholar. For the point in the major works, see Gott als Geheimnis der Welt (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1978), pp. 192–5. On this see Webster, John B., Eberhard Jüngel: An Introduction to his Theology (Cambridge: CUP, 1986), p. 81CrossRefGoogle Scholar; or Gunton, Colin E., ‘The Being and Attributes of God: Eberhart Jüngel's Dispute with the Classical Philosophical Tradition’, in Webster, John B. (ed.), The Possibilities of Theology: Studies in the Theology of Eberhart Jüngel in his Sixtieth Year (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), pp. 722Google Scholar. Gunton's own doctoral work had similarly located Barth (and Hartshorne, who has arguably aged less well) as an alternative to a ‘classical theism’. Colin E. Gunton, Becoming and Being: The Doctrine of God in Charles Hartshorne and Karl Barth (London: SCM Press, 2001).

37 Alongside works from Jüngel and Gunton already referenced, see for a representative example Jenson, Robert W., The Triune God, vol. 1 of Systematic Theology (Oxford: OUP, 1999), pp. 611Google Scholar.

38 For a quick summary of Baur's proposal and an account of the main lines of critique (which have to do with Baur relying on impossible datings of New Testament writings), see Neill, Stephen and Wright, Tom, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1986 (Oxford: OUP, 1988), pp. 2030Google Scholar.

39 Consider e.g. ‘Our conceptions of the divine attributes express the way in which faith recognises God's working. We have no right to distinguish from this, as did the older dogmatics, a knowledge of God's nature. The conceptions whereby the older theology proposed to apprehend God's nature are un-Biblical and have no value for faith.’ Hermann, Wilhelm, Systematic Theology, trans. Micklem, Nathaniel and Saunders, Kenneth A. (New York: Macmillan, 1927), §37 (p. 97)Google Scholar.

40 McCormack, Bruce L., Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development, 1909–1936 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), pp. 4968Google Scholar.

41 McCormack, Bruce L., ‘The Person of Christ’, in Kapic, Kelly M. and McCormack, Bruce L. (eds), Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), p. 171Google Scholar.

42 What follows here is an extensive development of some themes I explored very briefly in an earlier essay: Holmes, Stephen R., ‘Radicalising the Communicatio: Jenson's Theology in Confessional Lutheran Perspective’, in Wright, Stephen J. and Green, Chris E. W. (eds). The Promise of Robert W. Jenson's Theology: Constructive Engagements (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), pp. 131–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43 McCormack, Bruce L., ‘Divine Impassibility or Simply Divine Constancy? Implications of Karl Barth's Later Christology for Debates over Impassibility’, in Keating, James F. and White, Thomas Joseph (eds), Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), p. 175Google Scholar.

44 Schmid, Heinrich, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 3rd edn, trans. Hay, Charles A. (Philadelphia: United Lutheran Publishing House, 1875), pp. 314–15Google Scholar (emphasis added).

45 ‘Deitas Logou carni unita est purissimus actus, est perfectissima et immutabilis …’ Johann Gerhard, Loci Theologie (ed. Preuss), 9 vols; vol. 1 (Berlin: Gustav Schlawitz, 1864), iv.257 (p. 576 of edition cited).

46 ‘Subjectum Quo est Natura, ad quam facta est communicatio. Est vero illa non divina, utpote cui ob summam immutabilitatem nihil addi potest.’ Johanne Andrea Quenstedt Theologia Didactico-Polemica (Leipzig: Thomas Fritsch, 1715), vol. 3, p. 75 (col. 144).

47 ‘Quare etsi solius diuinae naturae in Christo properietas est, ubique esse & omnia implere, tamen habet hanc proprietatem communem, cum sua humanitate, quam in eandem personam assumpsit.’ Brenz, Johannes, De personali unione duarum naturam in Christo (Tübingen, 1561), p. 11Google Scholar; translation from Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p. 203). For a full account of Brenz's christology see Brandy, Hans Christian, Die späte Christologie des Johannes Brenz (Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1991)Google Scholar. He deals with this point concerning asymmetry on pp. 193–4.

48 A point on which I was in error in my ‘Radicalising the communicatio’ essay.

49 This is a restatement of the italicised argument at the beginning of Gerhard, Loci, iv.257 (p. 576).

50 ‘Quamvis enim unio naturarum sit aequalis et reciproca, tamen conditio naturarum unitarum non est aequalis.’ Gerhard, Loci, iv.257 (p. 576).

51Logos est persona assumens, humana natura assumitur.’ Gerhard, Loci, iv.257 (p. 576).

52 Quenstedt, Theologia, III.ii Q.IV (cols 190–8).

53 See e.g. ibid., III.ii Q.IV Antithesis IV (col. 193).


54 ‘Logos … divina natura logou iam habeat protos et kat’ auto, humana vero deuteros et kat’ allo …’ ibid., III.ii Q.IV Thesis (col. 190).

55 Ibid., III.ii Q.IV Obj. iv (col. 196).


56 Ibid., III.ii QQ.IX–XIV (col. 222–85).


57 ‘Reciprocatio, quae in primo genere locum habet, in hoc genere Communcationis Idiomatum secondum non datur: Neque enim uti fit naturae humanae beltiosis sive huperupsosis, ita etiam naturae divinae tapeinosis, kenosis, elatiosis fieri potest … Assumpti provectio est, non assumentis.’ Ibid., III.ii Q.X Ekth. I (col. 228).

58 Ibid., III.ii Q.X Obj. 2.


59 ‘Si propter unionem personalem et naturarum perichoresin natura divina comunicat idiomata sua humanae, propter eandem etiam humana natura communicabit idiomata sua divinae’; ‘Resp. Non pariter reciproca est unio respectu utriusque naturae.’ Ibid., III.ii Q.X obj. iix (cols 237–8).

60 … divina natura humanam intime pentrat et perficit; humana vero non vicissim penetrat ac perficit divinam.’ Johann Wilhelm Baier, ed. Preuss, E., Compendium Theologiae Positivae (Berlin: Sclawitz, 1864)Google Scholar.

61 Chemnitz, Martin De Duabus Naturis in Christo (Leipzig, 1580), p. 7Google Scholar; ET by Preuss, J. A. O., The Two Natures in Christ (St Louis, MO: Concordia, 1971), p. 29Google Scholar. Klinge, Hendrick, Verheißene Gegenwart: Die Christologie des Martin Chemnitz (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar is the most recent scholarly treatment of Chemnitz's christology.

62 Chemnitz, De Duabus p. 8; Two Natures, p. 30.

63 Ibid.


64 Ibid.


65 ‘… the divine nature in the person of the Son has assumed the human nature’. Ibid., pp. 9, 31. This is actually part of a quotation from Peter Lombard, Sentences 4.27.

66 Chemnitz, De Duabus, pp. 7–8; Two Natures, p. 29.

67 Ibid., pp. 298, 283.


68 Ibid., pp. 53, 69.


69 Ibid., pp. 63, 76.


70 Ibid., pp. 66, 78.


71 Ibid., p. 73.


72 See particularly Weinandy, Thomas G., Does God Suffer? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

73 For an overview of the theopaschite controversy, see Gray, Patrick T. R., The Defense of Chalcedon in the East, 451–553 (Leiden: Brill, 1979), pp. 451553Google Scholar. For Cyril's views in particular, see Smith, J. Warren, ‘Suffering Impassibly: Christ's Passion in Cyril of Alexandria's Soteriology’, Pro Ecclesia 11 (2002), pp. 463–83Google Scholar.

74 Barth, CD II/1, p. 329.

75 Gunton, Colin E., Act and Being: Towards a Theology of the Divine Attributes (London: SCM Press, 2002), p. 3Google Scholar.

76 See e.g. Ruether, Rosemary Radford, ‘The Liberation of Christology from Patriarchy’, in Loades, Ann (ed.), Feminist Theology: A Reader (London: SPCK, 1990), pp. 138–48Google Scholar.

77 See e.g. Pinnock, Clark et al. , The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1994), p. 106Google Scholar.

78 Altizer, Thomas J. J., The Apocalyptic Trinity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 61CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

79 Vanhoozer, Kevin J., ‘The Triune God of the Gospel’, in Larsen, Timothy and Trier, Daniel J. (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology (Cambridge: CUP, 2007), pp. 1734CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see particularly pp. 19–20 (for the definition of ‘classical theism’) and pp. 22–8 for the judgement that negotiating this is central.

80 E.g. Lee, Sang Hyun, The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988)Google Scholar; see the thesis statements on pp. 3-4 for an indication of just how central the assumed critique of ‘classical theism’ is to the account.

81 Breidert (Die kenotische Christologie, p. 13) offers a similarly broad judgement at the beginning of his monograph, referencing Altizer, Moltmann and von Balthasar in particular.

82 To offer only three examples, Emery, Giles, The Trinitarian Theology of St Thomas Aquinas, trans. Murphy, Francesca Ann (Oxford: OUP, 2007)Google Scholar offers a careful restatement of Thomas without controversy; Levering, Matthew, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar brings Thomas into direct conversation with the sort of revisionary proposals I have been considering, as does Long, D. Stephen, The Perfectly Simple Triune God: Aquinas and his Legacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

83 On simplicity, see Barrett, Jordan P., Divine Simplicity: A Biblical and Trinitarian Account (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Dolezal, James E., God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God's Absoluteness (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011)Google Scholar; on impassibility Weinandy, Does God Suffer?

84 I am very grateful to my colleagues, Professor Judith Wolfe and Dr Bill Tooman, for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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