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Doctrine of Kenosis

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Doctrine of Kenosis

What is the Doctrine of Kenosis?

Kenosis is a Greek term meaning to empty or be emptied. The theological application of the term, often referred to as kenotic theology, the doctrine of kenosis, or kenosis theory, refers to the nature of Christ. The question is: When Jesus came to earth, was he human, was he divine, or both?

In Christian theology, the word translated kenosis generally refers to the "self-emptying" of Jesus. A form of the term kenosis is found in Philippians 2:6-7 where we read that “[Jesus], although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied [ekenōsen] Himself, taking the form of a bond servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” Jesus, though he knew the form of God, took the form of a servant.

Many have debated the meaning of the theological term kenosis and what it means that Jesus emptied himself. A study of church history reveals that over the centuries, many have attacked the doctrine of the absolute deity of Christ. While some hold the Docetism view that Jesus was fully (only) God and only appeared to be human, other groups, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons, deny that Jesus had a divine nature. Kenosis theory argues that Jesus was both God and man.

John Calvin, one of the early reformers, wrote of the true humanity and absolute deity of Christ. In an apologetic, Calvin cited many New Testament passages to refute the heresies of Servetus regarding the dual nature of Christ. He wrote:

“When it is said that the Word was made flesh...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.”

The fourth-century Council of Nicea affirmed the doctrine of the deity of Jesus Christ as a foundational tenant of the Christian faith. The doctrine of the divine nature of Jesus Christ is not that the incarnate Christ was less than fully God but that Jesus emptied himself of his own desires and glory, became a human being, and is the supreme example of living entirely receptive to God's will.

The term kenosis has also been used to explain the human nature of Jesus: that though being fully God, he did not count equality with God; he became the incarnate son, took on human flesh, and voluntarily set aside (emptied) his divine power and glory.

The Divine Nature Argument

Orthodox Christians hold that Kenosis points to Christ’s emptying himself of some aspects of his divinity. However, like the doctrine of the Trinity, this deep spiritual truth can not be fully articulated in human terms. Christians believe the New Testament teaches that Jesus had two natures—he was simultaneously 100% man and 100% divine. He manifested the Godhead bodily. There is no precedent for this—he is the only incarnation of the one true God.

What, then, does it mean that “he emptied himself”? A principle rule of hermeneutics is that the reader is to interpret the difficult in light of what is clear. In this case, what is clear is that Scripture presents Jesus as God. John 1:1 indicates that “in the beginning,” Jesus was “with God” and "was God.” Colossians 2:9-10 indicates that the “fullness of deity dwelt in him bodily.” Scripture also notes that Jesus possessed divine attributes: he is called “Creator” (Col. 1:16), the “I Am” (John 8:58), and the “First and the Last” in (Rev. 22:18). It is clear that Scripture equates Jesus with God.

So then, what could the phrase indicate if Jesus did not "empty himself" of his divine nature? A presentation of several false positions follows:

  • Jesus was less than fully God: When Jesus took the form of a servant in human likeness, he forsook the “form of God” and therefore was regulated to a position or status of less than “equality with God.” This teaching may make sense to the human mind, as being 100% God and 100% human simultaneously is difficult to fathom. However, the whole of Scripture rebukes this teaching, and Paul specifically noted that Jesus possessed an “equality with God” (Phil. 2:5-6).
  • Jesus set aside his divinity to experience life as a human: Jesus laid aside his divinity (completely) so that in human flesh, as a bond-servant, he could experience human life and face all the fullness of human temptations and frailties, yet not sin. This supposition wrongly assumes that Jesus somehow ceased being God and precludes the possibility that the pre-existent son, Jesus, could simultaneously have two natures—God and man.
  • Jesus was never God. This theory assumes that verses noting the divinity of Jesus reference his being one in purpose with God or that he had the same mind as God. This supposition is rejected by Colossians 1:15-17, which notes that Jesus is one in essence with God.

The Kenosis of Jesus Christ

The Apostle Paul indicates (in his letter to the Philippian Church) that Jesus willingly emptied himself—that there was a self-limitation of all the fullness of his divine nature. Like trying to describe color to one born blind, humans can likely only glimpse what this verse indicates, but a few ramifications follow:

Jesus Experienced The Limitations Of A Human Being

To empathize with our weakness, show us how to live, and become an acceptable sacrifice to make atonement for our sins, Jesus willingly took the form of a servant, limited his glory, and lived as a human.

This limitation means that the eternal God died at Calvary. It also means that Jesus, who shared the very nature of God and thus has no needs, became a human and hungered, wept, became tired, felt pain, slept, and was tempted.

Jesus Willingly Humbled Himself

The New Testament notes that Jesus willingly emptied himself. This is an expression of grace, love, and humility—his sacrifice was not for his own advantage but for ours. It is important to note that the person of Jesus assumed the limitations of humanity so that by his sacrifice (as a perfect human), humanity could be restored to a right relationship with God (Romans 5).

Christ Jesus' Glory Was Veiled

The dual nature of Jesus, sometimes referred to as the hypostatic union, was revealed throughout his earthly ministry. As a human, he was born, grew, learned, hungered, and suffered. His self-emptying of divine attributes does not indicate he could not access or possess them. This is illustrated when he raised Lazarus from the dead, walked on water, and forgave sin—something only God can do (Mark 2:7).

Jesus, the god-man, was fully divine, veiled his glory to accomplish his mission—and prove humans could fulfill the Law of God with the help of the Holy Spirit and a commitment to faithfulness.

Jesus Did Not Use His Relative Attributes

As a human, Jesus chose not to draw on his divinity to accomplish the requirements of the Law. Though deity, he set aside his omniscient and omnipresent attributes to live a life marked by faithfulness and obedience to the Father.

Jesus Lived The Life Of A Servant

Though Jesus is the Creator and through him, all things are held together (phrases too wonderful to comprehend), he chose to set aside his divine attributes and live as a servant to model obedience, sacrifice, and surrender and to demonstrate the measure of his love (Romans 5:8).

Jesus Did Not Know Certain Things

In taking the form of a human, Jesus Christ set aside being the holder of all-knowing so he could empathize with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15) and because holding the fullness of knowledge exceeds the capability of the human mind. As a human, Jesus did not know all things, but at times received, from the Father, spiritual insight that confirmed his deity.

Jesus Is Able To Understand Our Human Nature

Jesus experienced poverty, hunger, thirst, scorn, pain, suffering, and death. He chose to do this as a human, so we would see faithfulness, humility, and love on full display.

The ways of God are above the ways of man (Isaiah 55:9), and for reasons incomprehensible to humans, the Father ordained that a perfect blood sacrifice was required for the remission of sins and that only a perfect person could redeem humanity (Galatians 4:4-5). These statements may be mysteries, but they are realities. Only a man could redeem mankind—and only a perfect, sinless sacrifice is acceptable to God.

 Paul noted that Jesus emptied himself of the fullness of the form of God and did what every human needs but no human could accomplish—he fulfilled the Law and made atonement for our sins. Christ exchanged his glory for our weakness—he became sin so we could become pure.

Modern thought concerning kenotic doctrine notes how the word translated emptied indicates that Jesus set aside his full form during his earthly ministry. Jesus released his power and glory, took human likeness, but did not forsake his true nature. His dual nature withstands the scrutiny of biblical criticism, and though, like the Trinity doctrine, it may be challenging to understand fully, the Kenotic doctrine has strong support in Scripture.

The humanity of Jesus emphasizes the love of God—it leaves human beings with a Savior a weak and weary world can relate to, love, and worship.


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Dr. David Campbell