10 Things You Should Know about the Kenosis Controversy
That title may have put you off, but if you are still reading, I trust you will recognize how critically important this issue of Kenosis is to our understanding of the person of Christ and the incarnation.
(1) The word translated kenosis is related to the Greek noun kenos and the verb kenoō. Kenos has the sense of empty or to no purpose and kenoō means to deprive of power or to make of no meaning or effect. It is the verb form that is found in Philippians 2:7 (see also Romans 4:14; 1 Cor. 1:7; 9:15; 2 Cor. 9:3). where it says of the pre-incarnate Son of God that he “emptied himself” (ESV) or “made himself of no reputation” (KJV).
(2) The translation “he emptied himself” inclines many to ask the question: “Of what did Christ empty himself?” In spite of the fact that the “it” or “content” of which Christ allegedly emptied himself is nowhere stated in the text, many have insisted on supplying an answer.
The argument has often been made that he emptied himself of the divine nature or the “form of God” (v. 6). Others point to his position or status of “equality with God” (v. 6) as the content of which he emptied himself. H. A. W. Meyer, for example, writes: “Christ emptied himself, and that, as the context places beyond doubt, of the divine morphē [“form”], which he possessed, but now exchanged for a morphē doulou” [“form of a servant”] (88).
The theological implications of such a view must be noted. It would mean that by virtue of the incarnation, the second person of the Trinity ceased to be God. This view, known in history as the doctrine of Kenosis (hence Kenotic Christology), entails a form of divine suicide.
But it would seem that Paul intends us to interpret this verb in precisely the way he uses it elsewhere in his epistles. In each of the other texts the meaning is “to make void,” “to render of no effect,” “to nullify,” “to despoil,” “to make of no reputation,” or the like. The point of the word is not to specify some content of deity or divine glory of which Christ emptied or divested himself. Rather, it is designed to emphasize the radical and far-reaching dimensions of his self-renunciation.
(3) A significant phrase is “although he existed in the form of God” (NASB), or “though he was in the form of God” (ESV). The word certainly points to the prior existence of the Son, i.e., he existed in the form of God before or antecedent to the activity described in v. 7. It would be reading too much into the word to say it speaks of eternal pre-existence (although, of course, we know this also to be true from such texts as John 1:1ff.; 8:58; 17:5). The translation “although” he existed is accurate, because the subsequent context alerts us to the idea of sacrifice, i.e., in spite of the fact that he existed in the form of God, he emptied himself.
(4) The pre-existent Son was in “the form of God.” The Greek word translated “form” (morphē) is used only twice in the NT, both instances in Philippians 2 (vv. 6 and 7). Early students of this text defined the “form” of God as meaning the substance, essence, or nature of God, i.e., the essential attributes of deity (cf. NIV – “being in very nature God”). B. B. Warfield articulated this view as follows:
“’Form’ is a term which expresses the sum of those characterizing qualities which make a thing the precise thing that it is. . . . 'the form of God' is the sum of the characteristics which make the being we call 'God' specifically God, rather than some other being – an angel, say, or a man. When our Lord is said to be in 'the form of God,' therefore, He is declared, in the most express manner possible, to be all that God is, to possess the whole fulness of attributes which make God God” (The Person and Work of Christ, p. 39).
More recently emphasis has been placed on the way this word is used in the LXX. On four occasions it translated four different Hebrew words, each of which, however, refers to visible form or appearance (Job 4:16; Judges 8:18; Isa. 44:13; Dan. 3:19). The article by Behm in Kittel (IV:746) says: “The term always refers to the exterior, to that in man which may be seen.” To what, then, is “form” referring? Most believe it is the “glory” or doxa of God. Thus the idea is not so much the inner attributes of deity as it is the majestic splendor, the unapproachable brilliance and visible token of all that God is in himself (i.e., the Shekinah of God). In the OT the Shekinah was the blinding display of God's presence among his people. Glory, then, is the majestic radiance of the divine nature.
Since it would be impossible to possess the “glory” of God without that internal, essential character or quality of which the glory is the outward display, the second person of the Trinity possesses the very nature of deity.
Others believe that “form” covers such a broad range of meanings that we are better off allowing the context of Philippians 2 to establish its meaning. Two factors in the immediate context are of help. First, in v. 6b the Son is said to be “equal with God,” or more literally, “to be in such a manner as God.” Surely, then, to be in the “form” of God is synonymous with being “equal with God.” But “to go beyond this equivalence,” notes Moises Silva, “and inquire whether morphē tells us precisely in what respects Jesus is equal with God (in essence? attributes? attitude? appearance?) is asking too much from one word” (115).
Another contextual clue as to the meaning of “form” is the only other use of this word in the NT, found in v. 7. Clearly, “form of a servant” (which is further defined by the phrase, “in the likeness of men”), is set in antithetical parallelism with “form of God.” The point is that Jesus is wholly and truly man even as he is wholly and truly God. Whatever is essential to human nature, whatever constitutes human “form,” is true of Jesus. Likewise, whatever is essential to the divine nature, whatever constitutes divine “form,” is true of Jesus as well.
(5) Again, not surprisingly (if we keep in mind the crucial role of context), the meaning of this verb is in vv. 7-8. He “emptied himself” by taking the form of a bond servant and by being made in the likeness of men and by being found in appearance as a man. In other words, Christ did not divest himself of any divine attributes or in any sense become less than God. Rather, Christ “emptied” himself, paradoxically, by taking something to himself. Simply put: The Incarnation is itself the Kenosis!
(6) Thus, that which constitutes the self-renunciation or self-emptying of Christ is the assumption of human nature. The second person of the Trinity “made himself of no reputation,” not by ceasing to be God, but by becoming man!
It is true that by becoming a man and living life as a human being, the glory of his divine nature was barely visible (indeed only on rare occasions, such as the Mt. of Transfiguration). It is also true that during his time of earthly humiliation he voluntarily chose not to exercise the prerogatives and powers of deity, opting instead to depend upon the empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit. But this was not because he was less God after and because of his incarnation than he was before.
(7) Therefore, the contrast in this paragraph is not between “the form of God” (which Christ was but no longer is) and “the form of a servant” (which Christ was not but now is). The contrast is rather between existence in “the form of God” alone and existence in “the form of God” and “the form of a servant” simultaneously.
In summary, then, of the meaning of the verb kenoō, Gordon Fee observes that “Christ did not empty himself of anything; he simply 'emptied himself,' poured himself out. This is metaphor, pure and simple. The modifier is expressed in the modal participle that follows; he 'poured himself out by having taken on the 'form' of a slave” (210).
(8) In becoming a man in what we call the incarnation the Second Person of the Trinity chose to willingly suspend the exercise of his divine attributes so that he might live a genuinely human life, subject to all the limitations and demands you and I commonly experience. That which he had (all the divine attributes), by virtue of what he was (deity), he willingly chose not to use. Thus we read the gospels and see a human being doing super-human things and ask “How?” The answer is: Not from the power of his own divine nature, but through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Thus the Son of God chose to experience the world through the limitations imposed by human consciousness and an authentic human nature. The attributes of omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience were not lost or laid aside, but became latent and potential within the confines of his human nature. They are truly present in Jesus but no longer in conscious exercise. The incarnation thus means that Jesus “actually thought and acted, viewed the world, and experienced time and space events strictly within the confines of a normally developing human person” (Gerald Hawthorne, The Presence and the Power, 210).
(9) The climax of Paul's argument concerning the depths of divine self-sacrifice is reached in the final phrase of v. 8. Christ Jesus didn't simply humble himself by becoming a man, he became a slave. Greater still, he didn't simply humble himself by becoming a slave, he became obedient to the point of death. Greater still, he didn't simply humble himself by dying, he died on, of all things, a cross! It wasn't just death, but death on a cross, a mode of execution reserved for the scum of society. “Never let us forget,” wrote E. K. Simpson, “that the death that Immanuel died was the lowest indignity to which the most abject social pariah could be doomed!”
Thus, “even to death on a cross” is the last bitter consequence of “taking the form of a slave” and stands in the most abrupt, shocking contrast with the beginning of the hymn and its description of his pre-incarnate glory. Christ Jesus went from the highest imaginable high to the lowest imaginable low. Gerald Hawthorne summarizes the point well:
“For 'the name of Jesus' does not mean that everyone will bow 'at the name Jesus' . . . but that everyone will bow 'at the name of Jesus' . . . i.e., 'at the name belonging to or that is borne by Jesus.' And that name is kurios, 'Lord'” (92).
(10) There has been considerable controversy of late in certain segments of the charismatic church world because of the assertion by some that Jesus laid aside his divinity or in some sense left behind or emptied himself of his divine nature so that he might live a genuinely human life in complete dependence on the Holy Spirit. I agree with the second half of this statement, but I fear the first half is theologically imprecise. It isn’t that God the Son ceased to be God while he walked and ministered on the earth. Rather he voluntarily and willingly suspended the independent exercise of those divine attributes that would have been incompatible with his living an authentic human life in dependence on the Holy Spirit.
Jesus was fully human, and lived and ministered as a human being who drew on the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit to preach with power and heal the sick and cleanse the lepers and raise the dead. He was also, simultaneously, fully God, fully divine. But it wasn’t by virtue of his divine nature as Second Person of the Triune Godhead that he lived and ministered and taught and healed, but by virtue or on the basis of his constant, conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit (see John 3:34). In this way Jesus has given us an example of how God wants us to live and minister: as human beings who draw our strength and continuously derive our power from the indwelling Holy Spirit of God.