The Empathy of God: The Incarnation and Process Theology

Last month I was doing a Skype interview about Unclean with Tony Jones and the missional leadership graduate class from Rochester College he was teaching. At the start of the interview we had a conversation about the God-sanctioned violence in the Old Testament. How do you deal with that?

There are a variety of answers to that question. One of the more controversial and heterodox answers comes from process theology, the notion that God is developing/changing over time. Moving from the wrathful and violent deity of the OT to the loving and forgiving God of Jesus Christ in the NT.

Tony asked what I thought about process theology. Well, I said, I've certainly considered the idea. (I've considered just about every idea. And I keep considering them. Sort of like a theological moth. That's what I am, a theological moth.)

Anyhow, what I said was that when I think about process theology I keep coming back to this text in book of Hebrews:

Hebrews 4.14-16
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Think about what this passage is saying about how the Incarnation affected the empathy of God. Jesus, because he "was tempted in every way, just as we are", is a high priest who can "empathize with our weaknesses." And because of this empathic intercession we can "approach God's throne of grace with confidence."

Here's what I'm wondering. What does this text imply about God's empathy toward humanity prior to the Incarnation? Prior to God being "tempted in every way, just as we are" was God less able to "empathize with our weaknesses"? The text implies as much, that there was an empathic chasm that Jesus helped bridge. God's empathic capacities were improved because of the life of Jesus on earth.

And if that is so, might this be a way of thinking about the change in God from the Old Testament to the New Testament?

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46 thoughts on “The Empathy of God: The Incarnation and Process Theology”

  1. "Sort of like a theological moth."  Love it! I may have to use that sometime.

    As to your point, I think there are other options besides process theology. All of them involve thinking about the relationship between time and eternity as you do here. The alternative question being to what degree is Jesus prefigured in the Triune nature of God eternally?

  2. To your question, everything hinges on the relationship of God's eternity to time. If "prior" in your formulation presumes a kind of linear temporality -- before and after the incarnation -- and that's where the force of the question come from regarding God's empathy with our plight, then it seems to me like other formulations of temporality, eternity, and incarnation might offer more helpful answers.

    (In this regard someone like Robert Jenson has sought to answer just these questions, in dialogue with the Cappadocians and Wolfhart Pannenberg, among others.)

  3. I don't know if we can describe God in the OT as ONLY being wrathful and violent. Revelation is a pretty clear indication that God is still wrathful and violent. Is violence the ONLY way God can achieve what He accomplishes? Doesn't that place a limitation on Him?Humans always present an "either/or" option when it comes to things, but is God limited by that too? 

  4. But that would imply that the Incarnation was not an empathetic act to begin with, which is at least in tension with the claim that God loved the world (For God so loved the world that...) and the incarnational acts followed. And if God is love, love must be the prime motive with respect to all of God's acts...

    I tend to opt for the answer in the transformation of humanity, rather than God:

    (Gal. 3.23, 24--Phillips)

    "Before the coming of faith we were all imprisoned under the power of the Law, with our only hope of deliverance the faith that was to be shown to us. Or, to change the metaphor, the Law was like a strict governess in charge of us until we went to the school of Christ and learned to be justified by faith in him"

    I would rather blame the harsh view of God found in the Old Testament on the effect of being under the Law... I also tend to view the Old Testament as harshly realistic in this sense: Creating a good and just society is really difficult--maybe impossible without a fully impassioned and committed populace. The "schoolmaster" was pushed to extremity. 

    Still, I utterly blanch at the violence and genocide. Yet, I ask myself this question: Since the inference to the best explanation is very weak in the case of a solution to this question (no matter which way a person tries to marshal the "evidence"), does that mean that God should not have created a world in which bad things abound to perplex faith? If Job is the oldest story in the bible, it's a question with a long history and very little to show for it. Except that faith, somehow, does go on.  

  5. The "prior to" is the theological sticking point. What I'm trying to get my head around is how a Jesus who "has been tempted in every way, just as we are" is the pre-existent Logos. How the fruits of the Incarnation existed from all eternity, "prior to" the creation of Creation. For if this "empathy" was already a feature of the Trinity why the "need" for the Son to come and be "tempted in every way, just as we are"?

    So I guess my question has less to do with the temporal issues than about if something was lacking in God that the Incarnation remediated. That's not less heterodox, but it moves away from the issue of time and speaks to why the Incarnation makes Trinitarian intercession more "empathic" because of the Son. Then again, maybe the Son was always empathic and also pre-existent. Which bring me back to the historical question: Why the Incarnation if empathy is an intrinsic feature of the Godhead?

    And around and around we go.

  6. The time issues are the hard issues. I'm also hinking of your comments here in my response to Brad E.

  7. A theological moth? I love that! I'm really intrigued by this post and this concept, since I just tackled this question myself. The best I had come up with was the idea that God is the God who isn't bound by time, so it's conceivable that he is currently doing some Old Testament act that doesn't sit  well with us at the same time that he's extending grace and mercy to me. That still boggles my mind, and I'm sure I haven't ironed out all the wrinkles and implications, but what does pop out at me is the idea from your post about the prison bible study, and how the psalm that doesn't sit well with us fits perfectly with the prisoners. Perhaps this concept is something like that: some kind out outside-the-margins-where-life-is-desperate idea. I'm not exactly sure how, or what that might mean; I'll have to think on that some more. Anyway, my question is this: are we thinking about God AS God, or are we unconsciously giving him the limits of humanity? And I don't mean that as a cop out, either. Also, I loved how you reminded me through this post that I cannot "arrive" at some theological concept and be done with it forever. I, too, must be a theological moth. Thanks!

  8. You here contemplate a God who limits himself within the arrow of time.  Einstein's general theory of Relativity suggests that all moments have always existed (yesterday, today, tomorrow) since the instant of the Big Bang.  The fabric of space is one line on a graph, and the curve of time is the other.  Together each point is relative to any individual observer.  Even an omnipotent God cannot be both outside and inside time, anymore than he can specify how many miles there are in the color orange. 

    Once you can admit that God exists within limits, you open yourself up to these endless speculations on the rationality of the words written in the Scriptures.  And I find this Impulse in human beings to be endlessly fascinating, and the one thing I have found during my entire life which may, in fact, point to a real God.

  9. Theological moth - love it.

    Doesn't progressive revelation have something to do with this?  The stuff right before that Hebrews passage are all about: 1) Son greater than angels, b) Jesus greater than Moses, c) Sabbath rest that neither Joshua nor David led their people into.   But now we have a great High Priest.  If things prior appeared monstrous it was because they were.   The full revelation of God's grace had not come into the world.  Tracy in the comments says something like that - "being fully under the law".  It is not that grace was not seen ex. Noah, Abraham, the Exodus, and others, but that it was specific.  So much so that law - justice - overwhelmed.  But now in Jesus we have the fullness of grace.  Still specific in that it is grace for you, but available to all through faith.  We can ask to be treated under that law, and God obliges, but the long history of that should teach us to flee to grace.

  10. And so three blind theologians hold the trunk, the leg and the tail of the 'elephant' that is the Divine and attempt to define, describe and systematize....Standing down a few notches in my view of what Scriptural writers actually knew about God and noting the very  human biases of all such writers ('God told us to destroy all those Canaanites...') actually assists me to see the Divine through and beyond Scriptures, not within.

  11. That's sort of what I think. I think the violence in the OT is human violence. That Israel got God partly right and partly wrong. Thus the "need" for the Incarnation, the definitive moment in human history when we hear "If you see me you've seen the Father." So the Incarnation isn't a change in the life of God. It is a disclosure. Jesus is the apocalypse of God.

    This means that my re-reading of OT violence isn't in spite of Jesus. The conclusion that the OT violence is human violence  is because of Jesus. Jesus causes us to rethink who God is and that, of necessity, affects how we read the Bible.

  12. The same Epistle to the Hebrews considers Jesus the same yesterday, today and forever.  It does not necessarily follow that if something is dynamic then it is also in flux.

    Also, in the incarnation, Jesus does not go to the place where Adam began, but where humanity really is.  The empathy that Hebrews speaks of is that of the Son of God really taking up the humanity that we actually exist in.  The holy one really knew the existence of fallen Adam and therefore his High Priesthood can be trusted when he make offerings on behalf of humanity.  If there is a "process" in God (I don't like that language at all), it is not a movement from Israel's tribal deity to that of the Heavenly Father of Jesus Christ, but rather the hymn of Philippians 2--from above to below.  But the hymn does not speak of something lacking in God, but instead sings of the incarnation as the very godliness of God.

  13. "There is no spoon?"

    "Then you will that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself."

  14. Richard,

    Lines from William Faulkner's Go Down Moses may be helpful here: ".  .  . He didn't have His Book written to be read by what must elect and choose, but by the heart, not by the wise of the earth because maybe they dont need it or maybe they no longer have any heart, but by the doomed and lowly of the earth who have nothing else to read with but the heart.  Because men who wrote His Book for Him were writing about truth and there is only one truth and it covers all things that touch the heart.  .  .  .  'So these men who transcribed His Book for Him were sometime liars.'  .  .  . 'Yes.  Because they were human men.  They were trying to write down the heart's truth out of the heart's driving complexity, for all the complex and troubled hearts which would beat after them.  .  .  .'"


  15. I am becoming increasingly convinced that Dan's "standing down a few notches" is the only way to operate. My "crisis of faith" has had me on a frantic quest where I have examined and wrestled with many various theological systems and Christian/philosophical viewpoints. These have included Reformed, Arminian, Openness, Process, Eastern Orthodox, Incarnational, Progressive, Emergent/Emerging and so on.

    I was born, raised and educated (all the way into college) in a fundamentalist, and most would say heterodox, denomination where having the "truth" was valued as highly, or probably more highly, than anything else. This has had the unfortunate effect of causing me to always feel that the real "truth" is just around the corner, that maybe this book, or this blog, or this movement will show me the "way" and I might finally be able to have my persistent doubts put to rest and my never ending questions answered. Only it never works out that way.

    It is becoming increasingly clear that the Bible cannot and will not support the attempts to "define, describe and systematize" the Divine. God [him|it|her]self apparently cannot and will not support such attempts.

    The Apophatic notions of, say, a Peter Rollins seem to be where this quest is leading me. The cognitive dissonance required otherwise is simply too much to live with.

  16. Dr. Beck, have you ever read Eric Seiberts book Disturbing Divine Behavior. Very helpful. I think it would generate some fruitful discussion.

  17. I take it this way:
    It's just another "If you can't believe my words, believe my deeds" moment Jesus provided.

    Everything God does is out of love for us.
    Believing God can "empathize with our weaknesses" is not something God expected for us until we saw it, and He wants us to believe it about Him.

  18. "The cognitive dissonance required otherwise is simply too much to live with."

    I know exactly what you mean.  My career was an attempt to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.  Beginning, each day, with my own self.  It's how I managed not doing myself in.

    Cleary, for now, we are all here.  Not so clearly, later, we shall all be somewhere else.  Through it all two earworm songs will not leave me alone:  "What's love got to do with it? (it's just a second-hand emotion)", and, "I wanna know what love is -- I want you to show me".  The answers are there.

  19. Here you go making me think again! Like is the Bible a story or did we just superimpose story onto it? Paul didn't think so. He was a big story line guy. Promises were made and that implies some sort of planning. This gets messy. It's hard to imagine God saying, " Wow look at what they've done now! What do I do next?". But the nature of God seems to be above quite a dew of us. Of course, theologians have been dealing with change in one form or another for a long time. The one I am most familiar with is the progressive betterness ((is that a word?) notion that emerged post Enlightenment and Darwinian culture shackings. If you're a disciple of Alfred N. Whitehead or his disciple Charles Hartshorne, maybe you try to fit the Bible's literature into that kind of schematic. But does God make mistakes? Like the King of Siam in the King and I, "it's all a puzzlement!". I'm sticking with Karl Barth...Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so. Somehow, I can't see God having to change his plans as the Premillennialists do with the church as an after thought. Is God really that loosely gooey? I'm with the Siamian!

  20. That's also the way I think it makes sense. It seems baldly contradictory to posit the traditional theistic God with all his omnis and then also claim that he learned empathy.

  21. Dan G., Sam,

    My late father referred to cognitive dissonance in this way: "I'm scattered from Hell to breakfast!"


  22. Dr. Beck, I absolutely love how you are "dogmatically undogmatic" and can discuss different points of theology without taking an objective right or wrong stance.  I think much of process theology is a little flaky, but I also believe it's incredibly useful - similar to how hard postmodernism is flaky but makes us look at things with more proportionality.  I am sympathetic (but don't embrace) one of the tenants of process theology that says the universe might be partially open.  Then again, I go to Greg Boyd's church and I might be slightly biased in my philosophical process. 

  23. Nearly every time I hear about God in ways that assume God experiences time as linear...I move it the most humble mode that it's very likely we don't understand time INSIDE our universe. That time-space as we see it now is likely a fragmentary, partially accurate, partially limited view.  And guessing how God would experience time-space is a VERY speculative activty almost certain to be mostly or all wrong at our best. (I put questions of freewill-predestination, closed or open future, and in this camp)   So does God experience time as linear, I kinda doubt it, suspect Him to be somehow Omnitemporal but have no idea, and may by the nature of my living IN time, have no possible way of really understanding how Someone that transends time-space would see it.  Time-space itself is mystery I think. How an Omnitemporal Being would relate to it is at least doubly so.

  24. Hi Richard.  I'd echo Joshua's enthusiasm for the way you approach questions of theology with an open mind - and the way you make us think.

    I wonder if the text really implies that being tempted in all points is the SOURCE of Jesus's empathy, or whether this point merely serves to illustrate the author's wider argument - that responding in obedience to God is the surest way to enter rest and avoid becoming 'unfit for purpose' - one of the bases for this argument being that Jesus receives us empathically, not judgementally.

    The way I see things at the moment, God's character is the starting point for my theology, for my reading of the Bible, for my interpretation of my journey through life.  If this divine character is subject to procedural change, my faith starts to look a bit provisional.

    There is of course an argument that Jesus was necessarily subject to the normal processes of child development (unless we take the view that he was born in a state of full moral development).  In this case, Jesus's expression of the divine character could be seen to have 'become' perfect - just as his power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9) and he himself is made perfect through suffering (Heb 2:10).

    The process, in this view, is not a change in God's character, but rather that of God's eternal perfection finding fulness of expression as he inexorably becomes all in all, as expressed through every aspect of his creation, including the life of Jesus and the life he's given each of us.

    (As I write, I have a sinking feeling that many have thought much deeper for far longer on this subject, but it's been good to have been made to think!  I have an unopened book on process theology on my bookshelf - perhaps I should try and read it...)

  25. You have to leave the rigid box of theology to consider the possibility that the judeo-christian version of god is like all other gods the world has seen - man-made. 
    But if you can take a timid peek outside the box, another solution presents itself: not process theology, but process sociology. Human society develops/changes over time. From this perspective, an OT god who commands violent tribal decimations and enslavements is exactly what one would expect of bronze age societies. 

  26. I think it'd have been more instructive had Richard given biblical examples of instances showing that God had indeed "changed" from OT to NT. Making sense of God with human wisdom and trying to make everything fit according to our logic and values that we at this moment in time think are universal is very risky. Observing Richard past few post somehow gives me the feeling that he is walking on a very thin wire.

    Personally, I think Jesus coming on Earth didn't give God the ability to empathise with us, quite on the contrary, His being with us help us to build our trust on Him and understand Him. Because He was tested like we are, and He overcame, the we can find strength in Him. 

    Inclusivity gets everyone happy and all, but then at the end of the day, one becomes fuzzy about what one actually believes in.

  27. While I agree that God could empathize with us previously and Jesus is prefigured within God, the verse Richard cites does say something tangible. The humanity of God is revealed (and God is more "human" than we are). God does experience something new and dynamic in the person of Jesus. He is not static and unmoved. My only contention is that there are other ways to envision how this works.

    I believe process theology leads us in a direction that underneath is pantheistic or panentheistic (ie monism). Most traditional modes of Christian thinking are rooted in dualism. I would argue that putting Scripture by Scripture suggests that neither is true. The Incarnation alone is not possibly understood as either monistic or dualistic in nature. The Son is fully God and fully man; one, yet unconfused. Make sense of that and the rest falls in place. :-)

  28. Did God need to empathize with my weaknesses in order to Love me?  Do I need to empathize with my son's weaknesses in order to Love him?  Is that not what unconditional love is?  The analogy of the sacrificial lamb is evident in both the OT and NT indicating that God's Love existed even before empathy.  Just the way in which He understands me is refined.

  29. Although I agree that sociology aids in understanding the cultural influence of the judeo-christian verson of god, the existence of concepts of the Divine in all cultures is conclusive evidence that the judeo-christian version is but one.  Spiritual enlightenment occurred when I became accountable for my own discovery of the Divine, so that God is not defined by one school of thought, but discovered through the combination of many.  God is not defined by a period, but discovered through life's journey.  I do not have all the answers, but that is what makes my life full.  So as society develops over time and space, so the discovery of God develops, allowing me freedom to build and refine that discovery for myself.

  30. How about there is a spoon, but the way in which I see it determines wither or not it is bent.

  31. Not sure what you mean by that first statement. Are you saying "that the judeo-christian version is but one" of many versions of gods found in human cultures? I don't disagree. After that, I have to admit, you've lost me.

  32. Fascinating.
    Is there any way that I might be able to access this Skpe interview? Was it recorded?

    Just LOVE the Dorothy Day quote - what a gal :)

  33. One person's 'rigid box' is another's freedom.

    It's a matter of agenda and perspective I suppose...

  34. As interesting a concept as it is, the roadblock that stops it going further is the never-changing aspect of God; in a lot of ways I feel it's referring to His character being unchangable. Part of the problem with people seeing God as unchangeable is that they expect that He'll give the same response to the same stimulus each time, getting awfully frustrated that God isn't a dispenser of things but an actual personality.

     I've never percieved God in the OT as being different from in the NT, but the groups He focused on changed. Israel and the Church are mutually exclusive to my mind, and fullfill different tasks and roles in different time periods and thus elicited different responses from God. (I don't see Israel or the Church as better or worse than the other but I do seem them as different, and I don't see the Church replacing Israel.) God didn't change, but His response did because the stimulus was different. Stimulus is a horrid word to use in this context but I guess it fits.

  35. The reason that theology is a rigid box: every nuanced twist and turn of its argumentation is predicated on the one enormous assumption of God. And even if you grant God, christian theology rests on the even more problematic assumption that biblical scripture represents divine truth (as opposed to the contradictory writings of ancient religious societies). 

    I was in a session a few weeks ago in which a theologian was defending the arminian view of theodicy. I proposed to him that his solution to the problem of evil depended on the concept that free will is so important to God's scheme that it's worth all earthly pain and hell to boot. Yet free will (as such) isn't found in any scripture. The theologian replied, "I have to believe in free will, because the alternative is that God is a monster."

    I replied, "um ... there is another alternative ..." 

    Unfortunately, that alternative never presents itself to the theologian.

    (I know that Richard has different ideas about free will and hell. I'm just pointing out how theology can paint you into an odd corner)

  36. Just to put a face on the OT character of God: He's the God who drowned every single man, woman, and child on earth, except Noah's family; the God who killed every first-born son in Egypt from infant to old man; the God who more-than-once commanded the total destruction of entire tribes/cities (men, women, and children) in Canaan.

    One can try to square this God with the character of Jesus (who turns the other cheek in this life, but banishes to the eternal flames of hell in the after life), but in doing so, aren't we really just comparing the ethnocentric violence of an ancient tribal society with the unoriginal sayings of a 1st century apocalyptic preacher?

    The most obvious way to assess ancient writings: they represent the character of ancient people.

    And after 2000 years of crusades, inquisitions, and enslavements, our politicians are still basing their decision-making on the words and actions of ancient warring tribes and a man who thought the apocalypse would come in the lifetime of his followers.

  37. Yes, every position paints its adherents into rather odd corners at times. The thing is (in my humble opinion) that whatever position we hold we all have certain 'givens' that form the foundation of our musings. In your instance (I am presuming that) you hold an atheistic 'given' which will then necessarily illuminate and inform your other perspectives. Fair enough (I used to hold this view too...)
    What I find difficult to understand is why you'd spend any valuable time confronting those who don't share your particular 'givens'?
    The exercise is, presumably, very frustrating for you and will bear no positive fruit, but rather the sense of banging your head against a wall. Whilst I accept that we all need a hobby, I tend to constrict myself to doing things that enhance and enrich me rather than annoying me.
    I am of the view that we all have to lay our ideological/conceptual 'hat' somewhere - for me, this is with a God. For you it isn't.
    I have no desire or need for you to hold my view - why would you feel the desire/need for me to accept or hold yours?

    Written with respect. Truly.

  38. My journey in life has taken me to many different places (including types of church fellowships). Your comment reminds of the time I confronted the pastor of the pentacostal church I was attending. I told him that his "prophecies" against pastor he disagreed with were false and were causing divisive harm.

    His reply was, "I bless you to leave this church."

  39. Interesting timing to your question, though. Just yesterday I had a long coffee conversation with an old friend in the church. I spent a few hours describing to him all the books I've been reading, philosophies I've been thinking about, and how my view of scripture is changing; I'd never shared these things with him before.

    He sat back, sighed, and said. "Thank you! I'm so glad I'm not alone!"

  40. Hello Beau

    I think that the danger of starting a dialogue of this kind between two people who have not actually met is that it is necessarily rife with the opportunity for misunderstanding and therefore a feeling of not being listened to or getting one's point across.

    Please believe me when I say that in no way whatsoever am I seeking to ostracise or even criticise you - quite the opposite is true in fact.
    I am genuinely interested in your ideas and by no means whatsoever am I claiming to be part of an 'insider' group of any kind. Again, please believe me that this couldn't be further from the truth.

    The only point I was (rather badly) trying to profer was an authentic desire to understand why you wanted to engage with issues that, by your own admission, you are on the very periphery of. To a large degree, you've helped me to understand now though.
    Anyway, thanks for your patience and I can 100% state that if you sound like the kind of person I'd LOVE to go for a drink and a chat with (for what it's worth...)


  41. Thank you, Martyn, it's worth a lot!

    I had to reply to myself, because I couldn't reply to directly to your comment (we may have moved to many levels down in replies). 

  42. I think action needs to be viewed through the lens of motive Did God do those things you mentioned? I believe so. Did they all have a reason/purpose? Yes, they did. Pulling the actions away from their motives/reasons only tell half the story. For instance, a man who shot someone because he was defending his family has different motives from a man who shot someone because he had bloodlust. If you just say a man shot someone without clarifying his motive, we will most likely assume a negative view of the man as any form of killing is a negative thing.

    Without motive being clarified you cannot assess character, you cannot envisage the personality behind. We have the information about God's motives so we don't have to guess at this.Because of this, the idea of trying to compare OT God's actions without clarifying his motives to the NT character of Christ is comparing apples to oranges. It'd make more sense to compare God's character in the OT to Jesus' character in the NT.

  43. I can see motive/purpose in shooting an assailant to defend a family; but what would be the motive/purpose in going to the assailants house afterward to shoot his wife and children as well? This is the moral difference we see between war and genocide today. 

    In the case of the OT what moral purpose does an all-powerful God find in killing the innocent alongside the guilty (infants and children are involved in each of the examples I've listed)?

    Hear are some of the explanations I've heard:

    Morality is defined by God. Therefore any act of God is by definition moral.

    Any innocents who were killed through God's actions or commands will receive eternal life in heaven, thus turning an act of destruction into an act of mercy.

    The bible is a complex collection of history and legend, assembled by imperfect people. We can see God's purposes in the over-arcing themes of scripture, but any imperfections in God's character can be blamed on the human writers of scripture.

    The bible is a complex collection of history and legend, assembled by imperfect people. Period.

    I'm wondering where Richard falls on this spectrum, given that he sees an "empathic chasm" between the OT and NT. 

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