What is kenoticism / kenotic theology?

kenoticism, kenotic theology
Question: "What is kenoticism / kenotic theology?"

As an effort to explain the infinite nature of God to the finite mind of man, kenoticism, also known as kenotic theology or kenotic Christology, serves only to confuse rather than enlighten people. The word kenoticism comes from the Greek word kenoó, a form of which is translated “emptied” in some translations of Philippians 2:7. Writing about Christ, Paul says, “Who, 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” (Philippians 2:6–7, NASB).

Kenotic theology or kenotic Christology, first introduced in the late 1800s by German theologian Gottfried Thomasius (1802–75), is based on the idea that Jesus actually laid aside some of His divinity in order to be more like human beings. Philippians 2:6–7 is used as the proof text for this idea.

The dual nature of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, is impossible for our limited minds to completely grasp. Kenoticism is an attempt to redefine the nature of Christ. The biblical truth that Christ fully possessed both natures is called the hypostatic union. Interestingly, it is only the God-nature of Christ that kenoticism calls into question, not His human nature. As human beings, we can easily accept the reality of Jesus’ humanity. Few would argue with the fact that Jesus was born, lived, and died as a human being. What is harder to accept is that He was born, lived, and died—and rose again—as God incarnate.

Among the difficulties perceived by the finite mind about Christ’s divinity include the question of why Jesus, if He was God, did not know the time of His own return (Mark 13:32). The “solution” to such difficulties is the creation of human philosophies such as kenoticism, which states that Jesus emptied Himself of some of His divine attributes, such as the omniscience that would have informed Him of the time of His return. But kenoticism, in trying to fit the nature of God into our own limited understanding, denies the Word of God.

Before we look at the explanation for Philippians 2:6–7, we must consider the implications of the idea that Jesus divested Himself of some of His divine attributes. First, emptying Himself of any part of His divinity would render Him less than fully divine. If He had temporarily put off His omniscience, omnipotence, etc., He would have stopped being deity. But God cannot stop being God, even for a moment.

At times Jesus intentionally veiled His attributes that at other times were fully on display. When He healed the sick, walked on water, fed the 5,000, and raised Lazarus from the dead, Jesus’ divine nature was fully evident. When He allowed Himself to be hungry, thirsty, beaten, abused, and crucified without retaliating, He was intentionally veiling His divine power. He did not give up His power; rather, He chose to subjugate it for a greater good. But at no time during His life was He ever without the fullness of divinity.

The most significant problem with kenotic Christology involves the eternal destiny of all who follow Christ. Those who depend upon the shed blood of Christ to pay the penalty of their sins do so with the understanding that no mere human being can fulfill the role of Savior. If Jesus were not the infinite second Person of the triune God, His sacrifice would be insufficient. If Christ were not divine, if He had given up His divinity at any point in time, the efficacy of His sacrifice on the cross would be nullified. To be the Savior, Jesus was at every moment both fully God and fully Man.

How, then, do we understand Philippians 2:6–7? In what way did Jesus “empty” Himself? We begin with context. Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi was written to encourage the Christians there and exhort them to live in the same manner as Jesus lived. Verses 1–5 describe the attitude they should adopt, one that “was also in Christ Jesus.” Believers are to exhibit humility and lowliness of mind, having the same self-sacrificial mindset that Jesus had. He didn’t use His equality with God to His own advantage; rather, He took on the form of a servant. Believers are to emulate Christ by becoming humble and obedient, just as He did on the cross. Paul doesn’t ask believers to put off their own human attributes and become something else. He asks them to look to Jesus as their example and subjugate their impulses and desires for the sake of others.

Kenotic theology does not add anything to our understanding of the dual nature of Christ. What it does is contradict the teachings of Scripture. Because of this, kenoticism must be rejected.

Recommended Resource: The Moody Handbook of Theology by Paul Enns

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