Kenosis and Priesthood, Book Review

Kenosis and Priesthood: Towards a Protestant Re-Evaluation of the Ordained Ministry. By T. D. Herbert. Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008. 299 pages. $38.00.

The notion of an ordained priesthood provokes strong negative reactions among many Protestants. T. D. Herbert argues that this anxiety stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of the issue and a “lack of theological imagination” in the major debates (p. xvii). An ordained Anglican priest himself, Herbert hopes to sidestep the typical Protestant objections to the priesthood of the ordained by connecting the concept to a broader theology that includes the relationship between God and his people. For Herbert, the theological theme of kenosis provides a fitting context for understanding priesthood. This volume represents a revision of the dissertation he completed at the University of Manchester under the supervision of Graham Ward who also wrote the foreword.

Herbert’s main thesis comes in three parts. In part one, he offers the doctrine of kenosis as an apt analogy for understanding priesthood. He first outlines a number of insufficient kenotic theories that view kenosis in terms of what Christ “emptied” himself of in becoming man. For Herbert, this emphasis betrays a naively realistic understanding of representation and misses the primary point of the incarnation. Next, he shows how Barth, Balthasar, and Moltmann relocate kenosis “within a trinitarian framework as essentially a dialectical statement about the divine identity” (p. 72). For them, the incarnation “is concerned with a fluidity of identity such that God and humanity can encounter one another without the confusion of forms” (p. 72). Herbert then demonstrates that the narrative of Philippians is concerned with the identity and sacrificial service of Christ and the subsequent response of believers. In this context, the concepts of kenosis and priesthood “each illuminate the meaning and nature of the other” (p. 76).

In part two, Herbert shifts from the “divine-human” encounter to the “human-divine” perspective. Building off of the discussion of God’s self-revelation in kenosis, Herbert posits priesthood as a response to God’s prior act of sovereign grace. Barth, Balthasar, and Moltmann again help articulate an understanding of human vocation in relation to God’s action, and 1 Peter confirms the connection between election, priesthood and covenant. Herbert then analyzes the external and internal aspects of the notion of priesthood, sacrifice, and covenant. These contrasts reiterate the dialectical tension that attends the concept of priesthood and the divine-human encounter it entails.

Part three serves as the peak of the argument and delineates priesthood as an “imaginative and human retelling of God’s story” (p. 189). Using “dialectical imagination,” believers can understand priesthood as a representation of God’s movement toward humanity in kenosis and a means to facilitate participation in genuine koinonia. Herbert concludes the book with a reminder that priesthood can visually “trace” the “promise of God’s saving act” and essentially resonate with God’s kenotic “externalization” (p. 259).

In this volume, Herbert provides a thorough treatment of both main theological themes (kenosis, priesthood) and cogently demonstrates the interconnectedness of the two doctrines. Even if readers remain unconvinced of Herbert’s final thesis, they will benefit from the serious insight his analysis affords. Further, his sustained interaction with key theologians provides a robust dialogue and his intentional treatment of the biblical witness ensures that his discussion does not stray into undue speculation.

Some Protestants might remain hesitant of Herbert’s creative formulation of an ordained priesthood. Herbert outlines the nature of priesthood in general but neglects to argue for the necessity of an “ordained” priesthood. His discussion of the issues related to priesthood is incisive, but most of these comments usually refer to a priestly understanding of Christian ministry. Herbert only raises the possibility of including the “ordained” ministry in this analysis. Thus, the insights of Herbert’s discussions are often applied to the priesthood of Christ, the priesthood of the church, and only then to the priesthood of the ordained. Because Herbert seeks a “Protestant” re-evaluation of the ordained ministry, the move from a corporate understanding of a priesthood of the church to an institutionally recognized priesthood of the ordained still needs further argumentation.

One minor but distracting additional concern is the amount of typographical errors throughout, an unfortunate aspect of an otherwise carefully crafted work.

Ched Spellman
In Trinity Journal 30.2 (Fall 2009), 298-99. (pdf)
Book Review
September 4, 2009


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