Kenosis Examined

The other week we briefly discussed the big whopper of a topic, the kenosis of Christ in relation to a popular word of faith teacher. My presentation of the topic was really a long-winded way to simply point out that the discussion of kenosis is more complex than we often like it to be. Yet, today, I figured I would re-explain, expand, and also present a positive articulation of what the kenosis of Christ was or is. We won’t get into the history of Kenotic theories, but will broadly describe them. Let’s begin.

Kenosis is Biblical

Kenosis is Biblical, and while that may lead you to flinch, don’t put on your heresy hunting hat just yet. Many often fail to recognize that the debate around kenosis is not about whether or not there is a kenosis, but what that kenosis implies. The term “kenosis” comes from Philippians 2:7. Christ “emptied” (ekenōsen) himself. So, the debate is, what did Christ “empty” himself of? Let’s begin by surveying the problem with the worst-case scenario. 

Ontological Kenoticism

Much of the controversy around kenosis centers upon what is best articulated as Ontological Kenoticism. 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. 

Some in the charismatic and word of faith movements have heretically stated that “Jesus emptied himself of divinity.” This actually goes beyond Ontological Kenoticism as it was/is originally articulated. I am not aware of an articulation that confesses Jesus abandoned his deity in whole. Of course, it has been documented that charismatics have been poor in their theological expression more often than creating a new Ontological Kenoticism (perhaps we could call this innovative position, “Absolute Ontological Kenoticism”?), thus leading them to clarify.

When we boil it down, 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. What constitutes an essential or accidental attribute is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. What is more, is that Ontological Kenoticism doesn’t require a deeper discussion per se on Christology in order to discern the error, which is nice.

The big problem with Ontological Kenotic Christology (OKC) is that if Christ divests himself of certain attributes in the incarnation, he is no longer of the same essence as the Father and Spirit. He essentially becomes a lesser god. That indefinite article is not an accident! Jesus becomes a new category of what it means to be God, and it is indeed not identical to the Father and Spirit. He becomes less God than the Father and Spirit. He becomes, or is rather, mutable. How Jesus remains of the same essence of the Father and Spirit in this view eludes me.

With this said, I think Ontological Kenoticism should be classified as a new heresy (origins link it to the 19th century) with old ramifications (minimizing the deity of Christ). I say this because Ontological Kenotic Christologies begin with different premises compared to ancient heresies, but can end up in similar positions. For example, Arianism begins with Christ being a created creature of lesser status, power, etc, than the Father at the outset. The incarnation doesn’t particularly change the status of Christ – he remains the same in this sense. In OKC, however, Christ is considered equal to the Father before the incarnation and then divests himself of accidental attributes. The results are similar, but they are not quite the same.

One theological nerd could even say that Ontological Kenoticism is homoiousios with the ancient heresies, not homoousios (perhaps this is a stretch even for a dad joke).

It is worth noting, of course, that OKC would maintain that because Christ kept his “essential” attributes, he still is essentially God in the same way as before. I don’t believe that is logical or tenable especially when we remember that God’s attributes cannot be separated from his character – they are descriptors of who God is, God is not broken up into parts.

OKC has other issues that can be examined and deduced, but we’ll press on.

Functional Kenoticism 

Functional Kenoticism holds that Jesus emptied himself of the use of divine attributes. However, what this looks like differs in its articulations. It is important to remember that both of these categories are broad and have spectrums.

This view agrees with the Traditional view (I’ll call it that for convenience) on God’s attributes all being essential and thus disagrees with Ontological Kenoticism’s categorization. This position holds that the Son does not exercise his divine attributes (whether 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. Typically, the emphasis tends to be on that Jesus was truly man.

Here is how Stephen Wellum describes Functional Kenoticism in his 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.”

While Functional Kenoticism is seen as less than ideal by many or some, it is considered acceptable and often reflected in how individuals articulate their view of the incarnation.

Many concerns or objections with Functional Kenoticism actually boil down to how the Trinity and how the term ‘person’ is understood – and really that begins to tread into hot topic debates beyond our interests (Social Trinitarianism, ERAS/ESS, etc). 

Functional Kenoticism and The Traditional View

In truth, from my readings, it seems that the traditional view and most expressions of Functional Kenotic Christology (or FKC) are fairly similar and hard to distinguish without going into more complex issues of Christology.  

For example, note Wellum’s explanation of the classical view,

“Against all forms of kenoticism, the Son does not renounce his divine attributes or even the use of them. Instead, the Son’s entire life is best viewed through the lens of his filial dependence on the Father in the Spirit. The Son does nothing except what he knows the Father wills him to do. When the Father does not will that the incarnate Son actualize some divine power or access some information out of his omniscience, the Son obeys and refrains. The Son did not abandon the use of his divine attributes: he could have turned rocks into bread or come down from the cross, but it was not his Father’s will.” (p. 441-442). 

He also states,

“Jesus does sometimes intentionally choose not to exercise a particular divine prerogative. But the point here is that the Scriptures present Jesus Christ performing the works that only God himself can perform.” 

The difficulty is indeed found in the broad spectrum of the Functional Position. As far as I can tell, the key distinction seems to lay ultimately in that in Functional Kenotic Christology, Jesus restricts the use of some or all of his divine attributes and does not use them ever. In traditional positions, Jesus maintains the right to use his attributes but chooses not to intentionally. As my friend Logan Talamas puts it, the traditional view says that Jesus “doesn’t lay aside use of any attributes altogether, but he does so in specific instances in submission to the will of the Father.” The Functional view, however, seems to lock Jesus into that restriction. But, again, because FKC has a spectrum, and because FKC maintains that Christ is operating by the power of the Holy Spirit in obedience to the Father, “divine works” that reveal Jesus’ “concealed” deity certainly could have taken place within this position. I think anyway. Of course, how FKC becomes applied (particularly for charismatics and word of faith teachers) is where things get interesting.

From what I’ve been able to track: one has a more firm – “Jesus can’t” and the other “Jesus doesn’t.”

As stated, the distinction really becomes quite fine in many cases, especially in those instances where Jesus restricts the use of ‘some’ of his divine attributes entirely in the traditional view. Another distinction, however, could be in how one understands the trinitarian relationship – yet, if both views maintain that it is the person of the Son who operates (as opposed to the error of thinking that natures act), then ultimately the distinction is of little difference. Thus the discussions would need to go back to definitions of “persons” and related issues.

Points of clear distinction are that the traditional view will more often point out that Christ “veiled” himself or “concealed” his divine majesty in the incarnation. Further, the traditional view will point out that Christ restricted himself of the “independent use” of his attributes. The position posits that Jesus works in dependence upon the Father. Again, I don’t particularly see much distinction in the latter point as FKC would say the same. In the former, the concealment or veiling of Christ’s glory is evident, and I think it is admitted in every position. Additionally, in either position, Jesus’ lack of use of his divine attributes is ultimately voluntary, and, in either case, it is the person of the Son who acts lest we become Nestorians.

Some questions that would need to be answered by FKC adherents are as follows:

First, as stated by Wellum, the Son does exercise the use of his divine attributes at times to do things that cannot be performed by a mere man. Thus, if Functional Kenoticism, at a given time, argues that Jesus is wholesale restricted in his use of divine attributes in the incarnation, then this becomes problematic to an extent. The reality is that some of the miracles performed by Jesus are clearly exclusive to deity and understood that way by his contemporaries. So, the question would be for the FKC adherent, can Jesus at times exercise his divine attributes? Of course, to be balanced, for those in the traditional view, we must wrestle with, “can those actions exclusive to deity be explained as being done through the power of the Holy Spirit by the Anointed One?”

Secondly, which attributes does he restrict the use of? All or some? Unfortunately, this differs among FKC adherents and so the question would need to be answered. For example; Does he continue to uphold the universe (Hebrews 1 and Colossians 1)? Is the extra catholicum maintained in any sense? (Luther, Zwingli, and the Communicatio Idiomatum, enter the chat). It would seem to me that if we aren’t careful and restrict the use of some attributes of Christ (such as upholding the universe), then he is no longer truly God and we fall into OKC.

Thirdly, the incarnation does not end at the resurrection, but Jesus is truly God and truly man right now. Do these limitations continue to this day? 

Of course, there are more questions for FKC adherents, but those stick out in particular. It is of course possible that I’m missing the broad line of differentiation as well, and so any feedback on that is helpful.

Not So Simple

As I hope it has been demonstrated, the topic isn’t as simple as we would like it to be and it certainly isn’t as simple as saying one holds to “the kenosis heresy.” There certainly is a heretical version of kenoticism (OKC), especially if one implies that Jesus emptied himself entirely of his divinity. Still, even the best teachers have slipped up in this discussion. I would even be dishonest if I didn’t admit that I’m trying to make sure that I’m being balanced, properly articulated, and of course, maintaining orthodoxy while writing this! Grace is necessary, to say the least. Take, for example, the chart I used in my last discussion on the subject, which included quotes from MacArthur, Beeke, Hinn, etc. Looking at Costi Hinn’s statement in particular,

“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.”

In context, Costi Hinn is correcting the poorly worded statement of Bill Johnson that “Jesus emptied himself of divinity,” aka, our newly coined term: Absolute Ontological Kenoticism. Yet, in the same correction, Hinn slips into Ontological Kenoticism, “laying aside was certain attributes.” Because we know Costi Hinn, we know what he is saying here, which is more along the lines of the traditional view, and we don’t conclude that he holds to OKC. However, the wording is OKC in implying that Christ laid aside “certain attributes” and not the “use of attributes.” You can compare the chart in that original article and see what I mean overall, and just as well see the example of John Piper’s correction at the end of the article. The point is that this topic is easy to slip on and more complex than we often will admit. 

To this, I can’t recommend enough Stephen Wellum’s volume – God the Son Incarnate, which is probably the most thorough treatment on Kenoticism I have seen.

Nonetheless, let’s look at Philippians. 

My positive case from Philippians 2: 

The beauty of Philippians comes out more vividly in its historical context of Philippi being a Roman Colony obsessed with social status, prestige, and honor. Still, we’ll jump in lest this article becomes even longer. 

Text:

“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

(Philippians 2:1–11)

Note: The following is a modified excerpt from one of my capstone submissions for my MA:

“Paul calls those in Philippi to live in unity (1:27; 2:2), and contrary to some in Rome (1:16; 17), he instructs them to do nothing from “selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (2:4). Additionally, Paul notes that the Philippians should look to the interest of others (v. 4) and not merely the interests of oneself. In verse 5, Paul notes that this attitude should be the attitude of the Philippians, as it was Christ’s mindset, “as expressed in the incarnation and crucifixion” (Hellerman, 108). As the Philippians are told to put on this mind of Christ, what we learn about Christ is that Christ did not look to his own interests but the interests of others (cf. 4). Not only this, but he counted others more significant than himself in humility (cf. 4). Paul moves from verse 5 by providing grounds, or an illustration, for this assertion beginning in verse 6. 

Paul expresses that Christ was in the “form” of God utilizing the term μορφή, which is heavily debated in regards to whether or not the term denotes ontological realities (Lightfoot; Fee), yet the term should be simply understood as being “outward appearance” (Hellerman, 108). While μορφή speaks to outward appearance, it does so in a way wherein the outward form of the subject is a genuine expression of that which underlines the subject; thus, “Paul uses morphē to explain that Jesus truly and fully expresses the essence of God (v. 6) and the essence of a servant (v. 7)” (Wellum, 175). Further, the text in verse 6 pictures the pre-incarnate Son, donning the appropriate garments of glory and majesty in accordance with his social status. Not only is Christ described as being in the form of his splendor, glory, and status, but Paul expresses that Christ is equal with God. Hellerman notes that such language, “equality with [a] God,” was common in Ancient Writers who wished to demonstrate power and status along with a “godlike position of influence and prestige in the cosmos” (Hellerman, 143). 

Yet, the remarkable pre-incarnate Son is not only described as being equal to God, but he does not see his power and status as something to be used for his own advantage (Silva, 104). Thomas Schreiner summarizes that the passage assumes the deity of Christ and that Paul is stressing that Jesus did not take such equality with God and exploit it for his own gain (431). Fee expresses this further by noting that this was contrary to the gods and lords that permeated the Philippians’ world (208). Rather than exploiting his power and status, God the Son “emptied himself” by adding to himself a human nature for the sake of others.

As with form (μορφή), debates, especially arising in the 19th century, center around κενόω or the “emptying” of Christ. Yet, as many have noted, such a term denotes an emptying, or putting away, of prestige or privilege (Hellerman, 114). Paul’s elaboration of the phrase “emptied himself” highlights such by stating that Christ took upon himself the μορφή of a slave, and thus such emptying is the humbling of the Son, not ontologically, but rather by addition of a lowly status and obedience unto death (Wellum, 177). While many would opt for the less offensive term “servant” here in Philippians, it would be best to retain the term “slave” in translation. We find that this is the only instance where the term δοῦλος (slave) is used for Christ, making it particularly noteworthy but also relevant to the context. Additionally, the term itself in juxtaposition to the μορφή of Christ prior to emptying himself would have been jarring for the Philippians. 

In remembering the Roman social pecking order and placing slaves within it properly, we can understand why “the notion of a Being of equal rank to God willingly ‘taking on the form of a slave’ would have struck residents of Roman Philippi as abject folly” (Hellerman, 115). Such a folly can be understood in recognizing that slaves were at the bottom of the social order, especially in that they were by law inferior and categorically separate from the individuals who lived in freedom (Gaius, 1.2.8). Harrill puts it vividly, “although they are not biologically dead, slaves in effect are socially dead to the free population” (1125). The necessary qualification is that Christ did not become a slave in a literal sense but rather “in a relative sense – relative, that is, to his preincarnate status” (Hellerman, 115). As Oakes states, the long drop from God in status to a human being in status was significant (Hellerman, 115) and so much so that it was like taking on the form of a slave. As it is implied, this taking on the form of a slave is expressed in v. 7 – 8 by noting that Jesus became a man. Silva points out significantly that the terms “slave” and “man” do not need to be pressed to find theological differences, but rather that the former notes the servitude of Jesus and “the latter simply reminds us that he gave expression to that attitude by becoming a man” (Silva, 106).

Paul’s description of Christ as a slave is furthered by verse 8, where Christ’s obedience, or servitude, crescendos with death. Paul, however, brings in elaboration yet again in noting that not only did Christ take on the form of a slave relative to his preincarnate status, but Christ died in a manner that was typically, though not exclusively, used for slaves (Green, 198). Contemporaries of the Roman Empire note crucifixion as being the most cruel, extreme, and wretched penalty (Yap, 37). Not only this, but Seneca’s vivid description of the brutality of crucifixion is telling along with his rhetorical question, “Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree…He would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross” (Yap, 37). Not only was Christ the willing subject to take on the cross’s pain, contrary to Seneca’s expectation, but Christ took upon himself the status associated with the cross, which consisted of “degradation rituals,” humiliation, and public denunciation of one’s identity (Yap, 38). Joseph Hellerman summarizes it well, “crucifixion entailed a degree of humiliation that was unimaginable in a socially stratified world that was preoccupied at every turn with gaining and retaining public honor” (155).

Despite this lowering in status, however, Paul further challenges Roman ideology in the exaltation of Christ that follows such humiliation. In verses 9-11, we find that God bestows honor on account of Christ’s willful obedience and “among Roman elites, to be honored by another aristocrat augmented one’s own status ‘in proportion to that aristocrat’s prestige” (Hellerman, 119). Not only would such a bestowing of honor on a crucified slave be contrary to the expectations in the Roman world, but the bestowal from God leaves the public acknowledgment of Jesus as Lord as indisputable (Hellerman, 118-119). Lastly, within verses 10-11, we find a connection to Isaiah 45:23, where Paul expresses that “Jesus Christ the righteous Savior bears the name of the one Lord, Yahweh, ‘to the glory of God the Father’” (Silva, 838). This exaltation of Christ points to the “public acclamation of Jesus as κύριος/YHWH” and, further, “the effective exercise of his universal domain” (Hellerman, 119).”

Quick Bibliography:

Burge, Gary, and Gene Green. The New Testament in Antiquity. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2020.

Campbell, Nicholas. “1 Thessalonians 5 [Unpublished Work].” Biola, Talbot, 2020.

Evans, Craig A., and Stanley E. Porter, eds. IVP-NT Background. Accordance electronic. Dictionary of New Testament Background. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Fee, Gordon D. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Accordance electronic. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

Gaius. Institutes of Roman Law | Online Library of Liberty. Edited by Edward Poste and E.A. Whittuck. 4th ed., 1904. Accessed April 20, 2021. https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/gaius-institutes-of-roman-law#lf0533_head_036.

Hawthorne, Gerald F., Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds. IVP-Paul & Letters. Accordance electronic. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Hellerman, Joseph. “Brothers and Friends in Philippi: Family Honor in the Roman World and in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 39, no. 1 (2009): 15–25.

———. Embracing Shared Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2013.

———. Philippians. Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015.

Hellerman, Joseph H. “Vindicating God’s Servants in Philippi and in Philippians: The Influence of Paul’s Ministry in Philippi upon the Composition of Philippians 2:6-11.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 20, no. 1 (2010): 85–102.

Kruger, Michael, ed. A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016.

Schreiner, Thomas. New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008.

Silva, Moisés. Philippians. 2nd ed. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.

———. “Philippians.” edited by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson. Accordance electronic. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.

Wellum, Stephen. God the Son Incarnate. Foundations of Evangelical Theology. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016.

Yap, Marlene Yu. “The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ: From Extreme Shame to Victorious Honor.” Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies 21, no. 1 (February 2018): 33–47.

Conclusion:

I do not believe the many theological inferences pulled from Philippians are justified at the end of the day. In terms of the meaning of Philippians, I think the context indicates that the kenosis of Christ is the putting away of prestige or privileges in taking on the form of a slave/man. The contrast is against the idea of Christ exploiting his equality with the Father for his own gain but instead becoming a servant. The divine person, the Son, added a truly human nature to himself. Thus, the Son’s glory is veiled by the donning of a human nature. 

Therefore, beyond Philippians, I would hold to the traditional view of the kenosis with the more positive articulation that Christ “voluntarily yielded the independent exercise of his divine attributes to the will of the heavenly Father” (Quoting Biblical Doctrine, pg. 258).

Rather than restricting the Son wholesale from using his divine attributes, we can say that he did nothing apart from the Father. At times, this meant not using his divine attributes. However, this also meant using his divine attributes and revealing his glory (cf. the transfiguration) as the divine Son, whom he never stopped being regardless.

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