Bethel church is surrounded with controversy, and for a good reason. For a long time, I was very vocal in my critiques of Bethel. I really beat the drum mostly on Bill Johnson’s Doctrine of Christ and that conviction that orthodox churches shouldn’t be endorsing Bethel via their materials (particularly their music). I still hold to the conviction on the latter, but my position on the former has changed, and by no means do I endorse Bethel, but instead still find them dangerous. This is a necessary discussion, however, because we don’t want to be ‘heresy hunters’; instead, we want to be Bereans with well-informed, thoughtful, and air-tight analysis. That said, let’s dive in.
There and Back Again
Bethel released a series called “Rediscover Bethel” sometime in 2020 or 2021, where they sought to clear up several issues regarding their doctrine and practices. I found it particularly interesting, and I sat back with as much objectivity as I could while also wondering if Bethel’s critics would do the same. Needless to say, I ended up remaining a critic while retracting some previous critiques of Bethel. Unfortunately, this means that I had the pleasure of being unfavorable and bashed by both Bethelites (I mean no offense, it’s just easier to say) and many in Reformed circles. In the past, my work on Bethel was taken seriously because of my desire to be fair and honest, yet I experienced the opposite on this topic!
Bethel seemed to be insincere and deflect from criticism in their videos for the most part. Much of what they said regarding their practice was, for me, unsatisfactory, dishonest, or apathetic. Some of what they said in their theological sections was also unsatisfactory, but some of their points made sense to an extent. I would summarize it all in saying that Johnson’s wording and attitude is quite loose and reckless, and he seems to know that and is okay with that – it is his way to challenge traditionalism and provoke critical thinking (which is what he basically says). One example, he uses the statement that “Jesus was born again” to say that Jesus was the first fruit of the resurrection. This is reckless because regeneration presupposes a sinful nature needing to be cleansed from sin. This abuse of terminology is very problematic, and even though his explanation makes sense when “born again” is detached from its theological connotations, he really should not be playing with theology that way and expect to be clear from scrutiny. Nonetheless, my main concern was, first and foremost, Johnson’s Christology in relation to “kenosis.”
When Johnson explained his position in the Rediscover Bethel series, I actually went back and retracted my previous work on Bethel’s teaching of Christ after examining his explanation and re-reading his work When Heaven Invades Earth in light of his explanation. I concluded that Bill Johnson’s Christology was very poorly worded, but his doctrine is no more condemnable than how others in orthodoxy have articulated their position.
To summarize: Bill Johnson has been charged with “the kenosis heresy.” Worth stating right out the gate is that “the kenosis heresy” is a very poor way to articulate what critics are trying to charge Johnson with. I have come to the conclusion that those who say ‘the kenosis’ heresy haven’t studied the topic in much depth, and I speak from experience. In fact, as one presses into critiques of Johnson, you’ll find them saying the “Kenosis heresy” is an ancient heresy. They’ll cite the Ebionites and the Arians as evidence, along with others. Further, some are confused into thinking that ‘the kenosis’ heresy is likened to Adoptionism.
All-in-all, I would say that many charging Johnson with this doctrine are doing so shallowly.
The Kenosis-Heresy, so-called
First things first, “the kenosis heresy” terminology should be abandoned. It is too unclear in what is being said and too broad. The “kenosis” of Christ is a Biblical concept, generally speaking. The distinction is how we understand “kenosis.” The term “kenosis” comes from Philippians 2:7. Christ emptied (ekenōsen) himself. So the debate is, what did Christ “empty” himself of?
Second, “the kenosis heresy” that Bill is charged with (essentially) is best called Ontological Kenoticism. The ideology comes from the 19th century alongside what is called “Functional Kenoticism Christology.” There are two observations here: 1) Ontological Kenoticism is more complex than what Johnson has ever expressed, and 2) this doctrine is not ancient.
We can compare the Kenotic theories visually with Ancient Heresies (if you’re on mobile, it’s a slider to move the chart):
|Ebionites||Arianism||Adoptionism||Ontological Kenoticism||Functional Kenoticism||Traditional View|
|Affirmed the humanity of Jesus but denied his divine nature – he was a normal human empowered by the Spirit||Affirmed Jesus’ human nature, but he was not “true God,” instead he was the first created creature of God.||Jesus was a human who was given the divine logos at his baptism and adopted into God’s being – he became divine||Jesus is eternally God, but emptied himself of divine attributes “not essential to deity” at the incarnation.||Jesus is eternally God, but emptied himself of the use of divine attributes at the incarnation.||Jesus is eternally God but emptied himself of divine rights, splendor, and honor in humbling himself at the incarnation.|
Ontological Kenotic Christology begins with the premise that Jesus is God, and leaves behind certain divine attributes that are not essential for his deity (such as omnipresence and omniscience). This view would not necessarily say that Jesus emptied himself of all divinity but more often that he is still truly divine because he retains essential attributes. Even in Johnson’s poorly worded articulation, it doesn’t fit the complexities of the “essential” and “accidental” attributes of Ontological Kenotic Christology. Thus, Johnson likely doesn’t hold to OKC when we examine all of his teachings. This said, Ontological Kenoticism is convoluted at best and heresy at worst because of how it arbitrarily separates God’s attributes (essential vs. accidental) from God’s nature. It also has several issues in how it understands critical terms such as person, soul, will, etc.
Functional Kenoticism holds that Jesus emptied himself of the use of divine attributes, although what this looks like differs in its articulations (both of these categories are broad and have spectrums). This view agrees with classical orthodox Christology on God’s attributes all being essential and disagrees with Ontological Kenoticism’s categories of attributes. This position holds that the Son does not exercise his divine attributes (some or all) and his divine acts are done by the power of the Spirit. Jesus lived predominately in his humanity – in obedience to the Father. This view is generally acceptable but found wanting. However, most importantly, this view is prevalent in evangelical circles. Additionally, it best aligns with all of Johnson’s statements on Christology despite his poor wording in the single line, “Jesus emptied himself of divinity.” Even with Johnson’s articulation, “Divinity” can denote “the state of being divine,” and this certainly aligns with Johnson’s idea that emphasizes Jesus’ humanity and his reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit.
In his revised edition of When Heaven Invades Earth, he states,
“While he [Jesus] is 100 percent God, he chose to live with the same limitations that man would face once he was redeemed. He made that point over and over again. Jesus became the model for all who would embrace the invitation to invade the impossible in his name. he performed miracles, wonders, and signs, as a man in right relationship with God…not as God.” (p. 33)
“Jesus, who would shed his blood to redeem mankind, emptied himself of his rights as God and took upon himself the limitations of man” (p. 38).
Take for example this older video of “Bill Johnson’s Kenosis.” The video is meant to show that Johnson is teaching the “kenosis heresy,” but what does Johnson say? “Do you know that Jesus so restricted his function on earth that he actually couldn’t heal anyone?” [my emphasis]. His applications of his functional kenoticism are sketchy, but nonetheless, it appears to be functional kenoticism. Johnson on his own blog states, “Jesus, who was entirely God, modeled life with the limitations of a man. His life was an illustration of what one man could do who had no sin and was entirely empowered by the Holy Spirit.”
Not only this, but Johnson in ”Rediscover Bethel” states, ”If he [Jesus] is not God, we are lost. I mean if he is not eternally God, if he’s not the ascended one as some cults believe; he is eternally God absolutely. If he’s not, we’re lost, we have nothing, we’re fooling ourselves, by all that we are doing. It’s a cornerstone to faith, period.” And in relation to the idea that Jesus stopped being God, Johnson says, ”it’s impossible” and ”ridiculous to think.” He does go on to move into his questionable applications, and this to me shows that he is consistent in his articulation.
Here is how Stephen Wellum describes Functional Kenoticism in his masterful work on Christology,
“In terms of the Trinity, the approach of a functional kenotic Christology is much better than an ontological kenotic Christology. In the incarnation, the Son does not set aside certain divine attributes; instead, the self-limitation of the Son is functional, as he chooses not to exercise his divine attributes. In his humanity, the Son relies on the power of the Spirit to live, act, and obey the Father’s will for our salvation.”
All in all, this sounds like Johnson’s theology more so than Ontological Kenotic Christology. To be honest, many would argue that both Ontological and Functional Kenoticism can be sketchy because of how they seem to understand “person” and the human soul. Still, because that can move into other discussions, we won’t dwell here. Others would also point out that the line between Functional Kenoticism and traditional articulations is very fine. We won’t get into that here either lest we distract from the points that firstly, functional Kenoticism has been accepted by many and secondly, a Christological heresy is a big charge and this subject is not as simple as just saying, “one holds to ‘the kenosis’ heresy.”
“Lived as a man, Dependent on God”
Additionally, the critique against Johnson regarding his statement about Jesus relying on the power of the Holy Spirit is also problematic, given mainline evangelical positions on the subject. You would be hard-pressed to find one who denies, “throughout his earthly ministry – including his baptism, temptations, proclamation, exorcisms, miracles, death, resurrection, and ascension – Jesus relies upon and is empowered by the Spirit” (The Holy Spirit, Allison, and Köstenberger).
The plot thickens when we look at how Allison and Köstenberger discuss “Spirit Christology.”
“Our view of the Christ-Spirit relationship differs significantly from a certain type of Spirit Christology, an approach to the incarnation that maintains that ‘in becoming a human being, the Son of God willed to renounce the exercise of his divine powers, attributes, prerogatives so that he might live fully within those limitations which inhere in being truly human. This approach (rightly) distinguishes itself from traditional (and heretical) kenotic Christology, which affirms that in becoming incarnation, God the Son ‘gave up’ or ‘laid aside’ certain divine attributes – for example, ‘omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. Rather, this version of Spirit Christology maintains that these attributes become ‘potential or latent within this incarnate One – present in Jesus in all their fulness, but no longer in exercise.” (p. 362, the Holy Spirit).
So if we use the categories defined above, as far as I can tell:
Spirit Christology = this particular type of Functional Kenoticism = not heretical
Traditional kenotic Christology = Ontological Kenoticism = heretical
Again, our point is not to dive into this more but to point out that this subject is not as simple as just saying, “one holds to ‘the kenosis’ heresy.” That said, I would agree with Allison and Köstenberger when they say that
“Our pneumatology dissents from such dichotomizing of the person and work of Christ in relation to the Holy Spirit. It is the God-man, anointed without measure by, and constantly filled with, the Holy Spirit, who restores sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute, mobility to the paralyzed, wholeness of body to the lepers, and life to the dead. In accordance with inseparable operations, all three persons work together in Jesus’ miraculous activity. This intratrinitarian relation does not change in the incarnation but is manifested in the Son’s miracles. At the same time, the incarnate Son, filled with and dependent on the Holy Spirit, performs miracles as God is with him. This economic relationship of reliance on the Spirit is new at the incarnation and expressed in the Son’s miraculous works.”
From my analysis, I would say that Johnson holds to a functional kenotic Christology, or as our authors stated, a “Spirit Christology,” and takes the application too far in saying that because Jesus did, we exactly can. Yet, this is not a Christological heresy but rather a disproportionate application of his Christology.
Ultimately, when we compare his Christology with other teachers we would call sound, they sound remarkably the same (again, that point of some that the line is fine between Functional Kenoticism and Classical articulation appears here), but would differ from his application. Here are some examples:
|Matt Slick, CARM on Kenosis||John MacArthur, Sermon on the Importance of the Ascension||Macarthur, Sermon audio||MacArthur Study Bible on Mark 13:32||Joel Beeke, A Puritan Theology||Costi Hinn and Justin Peters||Costi Hinn and Justin Peters||Bill Johnson, FB, 2012 and When Heaven Invades Earth Revised|
|“Jesus cooperated with the limitations of humanity and voluntarily did not exercise his attribute of omniscience. He still was divine but was moving and living completely as a man.”||“He emptied himself” That’s the kenosis, the self-emptying of Christ the theologians talk about. He was willing to let go of that equality and to put limitations on himself, self-imposed restrictions in – listen carefully – in the exercise of his attributes. He didn’t cease to become God; he didn’t give up any of his deity; he just gave up the independent exercise of his deity”||“Christ voluntarily restricted his use of certain divine attributes when he became flesh”||“When he became a man, he voluntarily restricted the use of certain divine attributes. He did not manifest them unless directed by the Father”||“He [Jesus] did not cheat by relying on his own divine nature while He acted as the Second Adam.”||Quoting Biblical Doctrine, pg. 258, “The biblical teaching that in his incarnation Christ voluntarily yielded the independent exercise of his divine attributes to the will of the heavenly Father.”||“The laying aside was certain attributes such as his glory…He limited himself to a point in some ways, but not the most crucial way that he is God.”|| Jesus is God, eternally God, and never stopped being God. But he was also man, completely man. In his earthly life he lived from his humanity to illustrate dependence on the Father in a way that could be emulated. Jesus said, ‘the Son of man can do nothing of himself’ illustrating his dependence. His limitations were in his humanity, not his divinity. Understanding the difference can help us to successfully live the life he gave for us to live. |
“Jesus, who would shed his blood to redeem mankind, emptied himself of his rights as God and took upon himself the limitations of man” (p. 38).
Honorable mention; see James White and Michael Brown’s discussion here (especially beginning at 3:10).
Again, his application becomes a focal point, yet, whether or not one agrees with his application of Christology is another matter. And, again, as I said previously, the above teachers quoted, as far as I’m aware, would all adamantly reject Johnson’s application of functional kenoticism and likely would not confess a functional kenoticism. Yet, on the ground floor, Johnson’s Christology aligns with most other teachers when we examine his teachings as a whole. Johnson’s wording that Jesus laid aside his divinity is atrocious, and he did warrant the critiques, yet he has since corrected that wording and clarified. At the same time, further examination of his work finds that he falls into functional kenoticism. Johnson’s wording elsewhere is quite loose and reckless, which again is my biggest contention with his approach, but I have come to believe I cannot pin him with “the kenosis heresy.”
This is to say, the claim that Johnson holds to the “kenosis heresy” doesn’t hold as much water as many will insist.
I took a lot of heat for my first explanation of this issue because it is the nature of many to pin an individual or group on whatever they possibly can. The difficulty is the Christian ethic of honesty and integrity, and consistency. If we are to condemn Johnson’s Christology, then there are others who are also subject to scrutiny who ultimately get a pass because of favoritism or because they are closer to our tribe. Many individuals have misspoken on such issues such as John Piper who had to clarify his statement from 1981 in 2017 which was, “One of the things Christ emptied himself of was omniscience” and “They [the divine attributes] were his potentially, and thus he was God; but he surrendered their use absolutely, and so he was man.” The former sounds like Ontological Kenoticism and the latter functional.
In his correction, Piper states,
“I would not want to say, for example, that Christ in his divine nature emptied himself of any essential divine attribute. I think omniscience is an essential divine attribute… Jesus Christ, considered in his human nature — operates with a kind of limitation” [My Emphasis]
“In his human nature, he was fully man. In his divine nature, he had all the essential attributes of God during his incarnation, and in his human nature, he was finite and could therefore grow in wisdom and stature” [My Emphasis].
This sounds like Ontological Kenoticism still, for example, does Piper hold that there are some accidental attributes Christ emptied himself of while he did not empty himself of “any essential divine attribute”? For the record, I am inclined to give Piper the benefit of the doubt here. Note, however, that before he stated that Christ emptied himself of omniscience, and he corrects that. But his correction is still unclear.
Again, giving Piper the benefit of the doubt and assuming that Piper doesn’t hold to Ontological Kenoticism, we can move to my point: Had Johnson made those statements, his correction would be ignored and his blunder repeated to this day. Or, if his correction was just as unclear as his initial statement, it would be added to his list of errors. Some have made mistakes even worse than Johnson, and many individuals have and do blatantly reject ecumenical Christology. Yet, because we are skeptical of Bethel, we will be inconsistent in how, when, and why we critique someone. I think this is problematic, to say the least. In fact, a handful of individuals will call Functional Kenoticism heresy, and in result will condemn the entire egg basket mentioned above.
As I said before this all boils down to the fact that a Christological heresy is a big charge and this subject is not as simple as just saying, “one holds to ‘the kenosis’ heresy.”
Wrapping up Pt. 1
That was a lot.
And some are wondering, where is the skepticism, and why has it been a defense so far? My big points are this: 1) We don’t need to be dishonest or ignorant in discernment, in fact, those are antithetical to Christian life and discredit our claims. And 2) while Christology would be a significant error, there are still many reasons to be skeptical and concerned with Bethel Church.
Even after re-evaluating my initial critiques and listening to Re-Discover Bethel, I still have reasons that I’m skeptical of Bethel Church. I still believe that Bethel is dangerous to Christendom at large. It is not because of one leader’s Christology but rather the fabric of their operation and the reality that Bethel is simply a variation of the Prosperity “Gospel.” Between their practices and ideology, I find that not only are the teachings of Bethel antithetical to Christianity, but it is harmful to adherents.
In the post that follows – we’ll discuss some of the reasons I am skeptical of Bethel. See Pt. 2 Here
Nick resides in Texas with his wife, daughter, and son. After meeting Christ in 2012, Nick began a blog in order to teach things that he found interesting. Eventually, this blog would become a podcast in 2017 and Christ is the Cure would grow significantly in its scope and mission. The vision was to teach the scriptures and theology while facilitating a love for God, his word, and critical analysis of hard issues.