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  • Writer's pictureDr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.

The Kenosis Theory

…but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant Philippians 2:7aESV

Question 46 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What was the estate of Christ’s humiliation?” It gives the answer, “The estate of Christ’s humiliation was that low condition, wherein he for our sakes, emptying himself of his glory, took upon him the form of a servant, in his conception and birth, life, death, and after his death, until his resurrection.” Last week when we looked at this question we focused on how Jesus humbled Himself in the Incarnation. Today we want to consider more specifically the 19th century Kenosis theory of the person of Christ.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, because of the growing importance of and emphasis on the natural as opposed to the supernatural, there was a strong push for theologians to try to explain the person and work of Christ in ways that they thought would be more acceptable to the times. It was a perilous time to be a Christian scholar. The Old Testament was being systematically dismantled by the Wellhausen school of criticism and the New Testament was being demythologized by the Tubingen school of theology in Germany. Those more conservative and orthodox scholars who had some respect for the articles of faith of antiquity were determined to preserve something of historic Christianity. They resolved to draw the line at the person and work of Jesus Christ and to desperately contend for His unique divinity and humanity in one person. The question was: how could they maintain this doctrine in a way that would be respected by the scholars and so, as they thought, remain plausible and acceptable to modern man?

The portion of Scripture that became central in their efforts was the first part of Philippians 2:7, quoted at the head of this article. The larger passage states that though He was in the exact form of God and equal with God, during His incarnation Jesus “emptied Himself.” The Greek word is Keno’w or as it is often transliterated, kenosis, and it means to empty. And so the question became: of what did the pre-incarnate and fully divine second person of the Trinity empty Himself in order to become and live as a man? How could they say that the Jesus of Nazareth who lived and died as a real human being was also at the same time God in the flesh, AND say it in a way that would be acceptable to their age? The attempt to solve this problem gave rise to a quest for a holy grail as it were, and various kenosis theories arose as a result.

Some said that Jesus, the divine person, limited His deity in some way during the incarnation. So that, He temporarily emptied Himself by becoming less than God or just barely God, either by giving up full deity or everything that was “not essential” to bare deity. Those who speculated in this fashion theorized that Jesus took up full divinity again at the resurrection or upon His ascension into heaven. Others held that Jesus emptied Himself of His awareness or consciousness of deity. This option was attractive to those who wanted to hold onto Christ’s full deity throughout His incarnation, but at the same time explain His true humanity in a way that would be acceptable to modernism. Here they used “modern” psychology to appeal to the power of the unconscious or subconscious declaring that Jesus could be fully divine and yet only show divine abilities when His subconscious was activated or when the Christ consciousness came upon Him. Several other versions of kenotic doctrine were developed and promoted.

All forms of the Kenosis theory failed because they refused to stay within the bounds of orthodoxy set forth in 451 by the Council of Chalcedon. The Council wisely and Biblically affirmed both the full deity and the full humanity of Jesus Christ throughout His incarnation, stating that Jesus’ two natures dwell together in one person “inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably… the properties of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one person and one Subsistence.” In His incarnation Christ did not give up, suppress, or “forget” any of His divine attributes, but as many translations interpret it, “He made Himself of no reputation by taking the form of a servant.” In other words Jesus “emptied” Himself not by subtraction but by addition. He took up a real human nature and came and lived as an ordinary man, though He was at the same time and in every way fully God.


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