The Fullness of God in the Weakness of Man: Examining the Doctrine of the Kenosis

The Fullness of God in the Weakness of Man: Examining the Doctrine of the Kenosis

In Ephesians 3:4, the apostle Paul wrote of “the mystery of Christ,” expounding upon how something hidden for centuries could be brought to light—the revelation of Jesus Christ. We still ponder this mystery even today. We ask questions like: How could God exist in human form, yet still maintain in the fullness of His Deity? What happened to Jesus in the Incarnation? However, over the last few hundred years, several challenges have arisen pertaining to the nature of Christ in the Incarnation. One of the most controversial teachings surrounds an interpretation of Philippians 2:7 as proof for what would come to be known as the kenosis, or “emptying” of Jesus Christ. For certain, the very existence of the doctrine touches the Incarnation itself. When the apostle Paul writes that Jesus “emptied Himself,” what did he mean? Before we answer this question, we need to examine the nature of Christ Himself. 

The Hypostatic Union

The affirmation of Jesus Christ as both truly God and truly man (the hypostatic union) was made at the Council of Nicaea, but a battle has continued to wage ever since. The issue is centered on the identity of Jesus Christ. If a man only, who was He? If a deity, what is He like? Is He a manifestation of Jehovah-God? As Jesus asked His disciples in Mark 8:29, “But who do you say that I am?” How we answer this question determines everything.

Jesus as God

While most liberal theologians will concede the “historical” Jesus—a man who was born of a woman, lived and taught on earth and died on a Roman cross. However, not all would admit Him as Lord, Savior, or God. The deity of Christ is perhaps one of the most debated and fought-over aspects of theology in all of history. The early church councils contended for this. But Scripture certainly gives enough support for the claims of Jesus Christ as the Second Person of the Trinity.

Despite the vast number of miracles performed by Christ, there were inherent claims made. For example, in Mark 2:7, the Pharisees ask “who can forgive sins but God alone?” The ensuing verses catalogue Jesus’ response by tying together the forgiveness of sin with the healing of a lame man. He does this “in order that [they] may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sin” (Mark 2:10).” Since Jesus Christ affirms that He has authority to forgive sins, and the Pharisees state that only God can forgive sins, therefore, Jesus is God.

In John 10:30, Jesus proclaims equality with God; “I and the Father are one.” Earlier, in John 8:58, Jesus claims the Name of God; “before Abraham was born, I am.” In Mark 14:62, Jesus claims to be “the Son of the Blessed One,” fulfilling Daniel 7:13. Jesus also receives worship (Matt. 28:17), which is rightfully to be reserved for God alone. Perhaps one of the greatest and most telling proclamations is done by Thomas, in John 20:28, when he proclaims “My Lord and My God!” See also John 1:14, Titus 2:13, Hebrews 1:8 and 13:8.

Jesus as Man

Jesus of Nazareth lived on this earth as a man. He hungered (Matt. 4:2), wept (John 11:35), became tired and slept (Mark 4:38), experienced distress (Matt. 26:37–38), and suffered and died (Matt. 27:50; Mark 15:37; etc.). There is nothing in Scripture to indicate that Christ lived a life anything different from any other human, with one exception—He did not sin (John 8:46; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:22; Heb. 4:15). Jesus’ life was the perfect example of a human life; the model for all humanity. Whereas Adam was the first, and fell to sin, Christ is the second Adam, and lived sinless unto glory (Rom. 5:12–21). Ultimately, one of the greatest purposes of Christ’s life on earth was to establish Himself as the icon of humanity, while existing as the perfect expiatory sacrifice for sin (cf. Heb. 4:15). There cannot be any question as to the absolute humanity of Jesus Christ during the Incarnation.

Philippians 2:7

The discourse in Philippians 2:5–11 is an exploration into the mystery of the Incarnation. The duality of Christ as God and Man is alluded to in the passage. James Montgomery Boice comments,

Before his incarnation Jesus Christ existed with God and was identical with God both inwardly and outwardly. He shared to the full the divine nature, and he was clothed with the splendor that had always surrounded God’s person. During the incarnation Jesus laid aside the outward glory (which would have made it impossible for human beings to approach him) and took the form of a servant. What remained was God’s glory in the inward sense, for even in the flesh Jesus Christ was God and retained all of the divine nature.[1]

 Philippians 2 tackles the true identity of Christ as God and man. It speaks to the preexistence of Christ, as well as the equality with God (Phil. 2:6; cf. John 1:1–2). Speaking on the “form of God,” Boice continues,

the Greek word morphe has different senses in Greek; it refers both to the inward character of a thing and also to the outward form that expresses its inward character. Hence, when Paul says that Christ took upon him the nature of a servant he means that Christ became man both inwardly and outwardly… Jesus possessed inwardly and displayed outwardly the very nature of God. In the same way he also took upon himself the very nature of man both inwardly and outwardly. With the exception of being sinful, everything that can be said about a man can be said about the Lord Jesus Christ.[2]

The true thrust of the passage, however, centers on one specific attribute possessed by Christ during the Incarnation—humility. Verse 8 specifically tells us that Jesus “humbled Himself… to the point of death.” Once again, Boice explores,

Four times in his ministry Jesus spoke on the text: ‘For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted’ (Matt 18:4; 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14). He lived the text. His own life is the greatest example of that principle… Everything that is said in the first four verses of Philippians 2:5-11 has Jesus himself as the subject. He did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. He made himself nothing. He became obedient. The second half of the passage has God as the subject, and Jesus is passive: ‘Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow’ (vv.9-10).[3]

Somehow the Second Person of the Trinity passes from preexistent glory into absolute humility in the Incarnation. How did this happen? How could this happen? What does this do to His attributes? Is there a change being made? After all, verse 8 says that Christ “became” obedient. There is some sort of transition occurring here. But how are we to understand the implications of the abject humility of the greatest One in history?

The Doctrine of Kenosis

The term “kenosis” comes from the main verb in Philippians 2:7, ekenosen; and is rendered “emptied Himself” in most formal equivalent translations.[4] Louis Berkhof explains the foundations of the doctrine:

Originally it was used by Lutheran theologians to denote the self-limitation, not of the Logos, but of the God-man, whereby He, in the interest of humiliation, laid aside the actual use of His divine attributes. In the teachings of the Kenoticists, however, it signalized the doctrine that the Logos at the incarnation was denuded of His transitive or of all His attributes, was reduced to a mere potentiality, and then, in union with the human nature developed again into a divine-human person.[5]

Dr. Robert L. Reymond credits German Lutheran theologian Gottfried Thomasius (1802–1875) with propounding the theory. From that point in history, many variations and manifestations of kenosis have been brought to light by such men as A.M. Fairbairne, F. Godet, C. Gore, A.B. Bruce, H.R. Mackintosh, O. Quick, V. Taylor, and many others.[6]

The main problems with kenosis center on its construction and implications. Essentially, an entire doctrine has been built based on one word in a single verse—Philippians 2:7. Proponents of kenosis have struggled to synthesize additional verses in their construction. Millard Erickson comments on the passage:

To a considerable extent, the passage in Philippians is not subjected to intensive literal exegesis; that is, theologians do not attempt to extract from the text an explanation of what ‘emptying himself’ means, in what it consisted, and how it is accomplished. Rather, the pivotal Greek word… is used to name a theory which does some speculation about the nature of Jesus’ earthly state.[7]

Beyond the weakness of textual synthesis and questions about its meaning, the kenosis carries with it certain Christological implications. Wayne Grudem writes,

The kenosis theory holds that Christ gave up some of his divine attributes while he was on earth as a man… According to the theory Christ ‘emptied himself’ of some of his divine attributes, such as omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence, while he was on earth as a man. This was viewed as a voluntary self-limitation on Christ’s part, which he carried out in order to fulfill his work of redemption.[8]

Some concerns over kenosis are addressed in the following section, followed by a reconstruction of the possible ramifications of Philippians 2:7.

A Deconstruction of Kenosis

While the exploration of a biblical text must involve faithful exegesis, it must also reflect orthodox biblical theology. Basically, a text cannot mean something that it has never meant before. Wayne Grudem addresses the historical meaning of Philippians 2:7:

We must first realize that no recognized teacher in the first 1,800 years of church history, including those who were native speakers of Greek, thought that ‘emptied himself’ in Philippians 2:7 meant that the Son of God gave up some of his divine attributes.[9]

Charles C. Ryrie further elucidates,

‘Emptied’ may be a misleading translation because it connotes Christ’s giving up or losing some of His divine attributes during His earthly life, and that was not the case. Therefore, kenosis cannot be understood to mean a subtraction of deity but an addition of humanity with its consequent limitations… Choosing not to use His divine attributes is quite different from saying that He gave them up. Nonuse does not mean subtraction.[10]

This simple phrase, “emptied Himself” carries with it the potentiality of dangerous implications on the full deity of Jesus Christ. Certainly, within the realm of orthodoxy, we cannot understand or accept the notion of Christ subtracting or losing any of his deity! The absolute deity of the God-Man is essential because of salvation—both his full deity and complete humanity. One writer notes, “If He were not a man, He could not die; if He were not God, His death would not have had infinite value.”[11]

If, in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, He changed or altered His very person, character, or being, then He could not be the expiation of sin required for the salvation of mankind. So then, how are we to explain an “emptying” of certain qualities? Reymond further explains,

…divine attributes are not characteristics that are separate and distinct from the divine essence so that God can set them aside as one might remove a pin from a pincushion and still have the pincushion. Rather, the divine essence is expressed precisely in the sum total of its attributes. To hold that God the Son actually emptied himself in his state of humiliation of even one divine characteristic is tantamount to saying that he who ‘enfleshed’ himself in the Incarnation, while perhaps more than man, is now not quite God either.[12]

The very essence of faithfulness of God and His character is at stake. The issue at hand does not seem to be that the term “emptied Himself” is fallacious, rather, perhaps the understanding and translation. Louis Berkhof addresses this issue of translation:

The verb is found in only four other New Testament passages, namely, Rom. 4:14; I Cor. 1:17; 9:15; II Cor. 9:3. In all of these it is used figuratively and means ‘to make void,’ ‘of no effect,’ ‘of no account,’ ‘of no reputation.’ If we so understand the word here, it simply means that Christ made Himself of no account, of no reputation, did not assert His divine prerogative, but took the form of a servant. But even if we take the word in its literal sense, it does not support the Kenosis theory. It would, if we understood that which He laid aside to be the morphe theou (form of God), and then conceived of morphe strictly as the essential or specific character of the Godhead. In all probability morphe must be so understood, but the verb ekenosen does not refer to morphe theou, but to einai isa theoi (dat.) that is, His being of an equality with God. The fact that Christ took the form of a servant does not involve a laying aside of the form of God. There was no exchange of the one for the other. Though He pre-existed in the form of God, Christ did not count the being on an equality with God as a prize which He must not let slip, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant. Now what does His becoming a servant involve? A state of subjection in which one is called upon to render obedience. And the opposite of this is a state of sovereignty in which one has the right to command. The being on an equality with God does not denote a mode of being, but a state which Christ exchanged for another state.[13]

Jesus Christ, then, can be understood to be “emptying Himself” in a figurative sense, of His glory while on earth. John Stott addresses the dire consequences if God were to “empty Himself” of deity,

He can empty himself of his rightful glory and humble himself to serve. Indeed, it is precisely this that he has done in Christ (Phil 2:7-8). But he cannot repudiate any part of himself because he is perfect. He cannot contradict himself. This is his integrity… He is always himself and never inconsistent. If he were ever to behave ‘uncharacteristically,’ in a way that is out of character with himself, he would cease to be God and the world would be thrown into moral confusion. No, God is God; he never deviates one iota, even one tiny hair’s breadth, from being entirely himself.[14]

God must be God. And if we continue to proclaim Jesus as God, then Jesus must be fully God as well. This simple fact about Christ bears incredible weight on the text of Philippians 2:7. While we understand that God will not contradict Himself in Scripture, we can approach the text confidently that God is not changing or diminishing. Reymond offers, perhaps the harshest criticism of kenosis:

It is clear, then, from both Scripture and church history that kenotic Christology cannot claim to be an orthodox Christological formula. Rather, it is a blemish on the face of historic Christology and should be repudiated as a reductionistic heterodoxy respecting Christ’s deity.[15]

The Kenosis and the Incarnation

How then are we to understand the implications of the Incarnation? Does Philippians 2:5–11 help us in our further construction of an understanding of Christ on earth? On the Incarnation of Christ, John Calvin writes,

When it is said that the Word was made flesh, we must not understand it as if he were either changed into flesh, or confusedly intermingled with flesh, but that he made choice of the Virgin’s womb as a temple in which he might dwell. He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person. For we maintain, that the divinity was so conjoined and united with humanity, that the entire properties of each nature remain entire, and yet the two natures constitute only one Christ.[16]

 What can we conclude the text is saying about the Incarnation? How is Jesus Christ “humbling Himself” by “emptying Himself?” It seems to lie in the phrase, “taking the form of a bond-servant.” Ralph Martin explains, 

As he did not clutch at equality with his Father he perforce accepted the consequences of this renunciation. But made himself nothing, which is, more literally, ‘but emptied himself’, heauton ekenosen—a phrase which has given its name to the so-called ‘kenosis’ theory of the incarnation – is best interpreted in the light of the words which immediately follow. It will then refer to the ‘pre-incarnate renunciation coincident with the act of ‘taking the form of a servant’’, and this reading of the text stands over against the original ‘kenotic’ idea that in becoming man he divested himself of the relative attributes of deity, viz. omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence, and ever suffered the extinction of his eternal self-conscience. The present verse says nothing about such things, but rather teaches that his ‘kenosis’ or self-emptying was his taking the servant’s form, and this involved the necessary limitations of his glory which he laid aside in order that he might be born in human likeness.[17]

In taking on the form of humanity, Jesus Christ could not have altered His state of deity, as He is immutable. According to John Walvoord, “it may be stated that the humiliation of Christ consisted in the veiling of His preincarnate glory. It was necessary to give up the outer appearance of God in order to take upon Himself the form of Man.”[18] Jesus could not have been beheld had He remained in His glorified form while on earth.

If Christ did not surrender any portion of His divine Person, then what was He giving up? Grudem concludes, “the best understanding of this passage is that it talks about Jesus giving up the status and privilege that was his in heaven: he ‘did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped’ (or ‘clung to for his own advantage’) but ‘emptied himself’ or ‘humbled himself’ for our sake, and came to live as a man.”[19] The text seems to imply an addition, which taken in light of Christ’s already-complete perfection, would be the essence of humility—an emptying of sorts. On this concept, Homer A. Kent Jr. writes, “[t]he word ‘taking’ (labon) does not imply an exchange, but rather an addition. The ‘form of God’ could not be relinquished, for God cannot cease to be God; but our Lord could and did take on the very form of a lowly servant when he entered human life by the Incarnation.”[20]

Even further, Michael J. Gorman postulates, “Kenosis, therefore, does not mean Christ’s emptying himself of his divinity (or of anything else) but rather Christ’s exercising his divinity, his equality with God.”[21] In order to save humanity, Jesus had to do what none other had the power to do—take the humble form of human flesh and wrap it around His glorious Deity. This act is the very core of the meaning of humiliation. Millard Erickson concurs,

I prefer to emphasize that what he did in the incarnation was to add something to each nature, namely, the attributes of the other nature. Thus I would interpret the participle [‘taking’] in Philippians 2:7 as an instrumental principle, so that it should be rendered, ‘He emptied himself by taking the form of a servant.’ The context seems to indicate that what he emptied himself of was his glory, nothing being said about giving up any attributes of deity, either essential or accidental. He retained the [form] of God, but added to it the form of a servant. He still had divine attributes, but they were now exercised in connection with the humanity which he had assumed.[22]

Conclusion

In conclusion, Philippians 2:7 does not demonstrate a subtraction or depletion of Christ’s Deity, rather an addition of the humiliation of flesh around His glory. If “God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble,” then would not Christ, in the incarnation of humility, undertake the epitome of humiliation? He would. He did.

The kingdom of God assuredly had no beginning, and will have no end: but because he was hid under a humble clothing of flesh, and took upon himself the form of a servant, and humbled himself (Phil 2:8), and, laying aside the insignia of majesty, became obedient to the Father; and after undergoing this subjection was at length crowned with glory and honor (Heb 2:7), and exalted to supreme authority, that at his name every knee should bow (Phil 2:10); so at the end he will subject to the Father both the name and the crown of glory, and whatever he received from the Father, that God may be all in all (1 Cor 15:28).[23]


 [1] James Montgomery Boice, Philippians: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1971), 118.

[2] Boice, Philippians, 120-121.

[3] Boice, Philippians, 111.

[4] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1938), 328.

[5] Ibid, 327.

[6] Dr. Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 615.

[7] Millard Erickson, The Word Became Flesh (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), 552.

[8] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 550.

[9] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 550

[10] Charles C. Ryrie, A Survey of Bible Doctrine (Chicago: Moody, 1972), 58-59

[11] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Major Bible Themes (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1974), 56.

[12] Reymond, Systematic Theology, 616

[13] Louis Berkohof, Systematic Theology, 328.

[14] John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, (Downers Grove: IVP, 1986), 128-129

[15] Reymond, Systematic Theology, 617.

[16] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 309.

[17] Ralph P. Martin, Philippians: An Introduction and Commentary (TNTC) (Downers Grove: IVP, 1987), 108-109

[18] John F. Walvoord, Jesus Christ Our Lord (Chicago: Moody Press, 1969), 143

[19] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 550-551

[20] Homer A. Kent, Jr. “Philippians” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 123-124

[21] Michael J. Gorman, “‘Although/Because He Was in the Form of God’: The Theological Significance of Paul’s Master Story (Phil 2:6-11)” in Journal of Theological Interpretation 1.2 (2007) 162.

[22] Millard Erickson, The Word Became Flesh, 555.

[23] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 311.

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