Saturday, November 29, 2014

Kenotic Christology: The Example Christ set in Communion with and Reliance upon the Father and Spirit (Academic)


Justin Steckbauer
November 24, 2014


            In the history of theology over the ages, many doctrines have been debated, disputed and fought over.  One area of particular importance to theology is Christology, the study of the nature and person of Jesus Christ.  Christology is to many the most important field of Theology, because it deals with the person at the very center of history, life, and divinity, the blessed Lord Jesus Christ.  At the very heart of Christology is the understanding that Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully God.  This doctrine was first formally accepted at the Council of Chalcedon, in the year AD 451 (Boyd, 2009, p. 112).  The question of how Jesus Christ can be fully God and full man has puzzled theologians over the ages.  In present day evangelicalism, the debate has fallen into two broad categories: the classical view and the kenotic view (Boyd, 2009, p. 112).  The Classical view holds that while Jesus Christ walked the earth as the God-man, he carried with him his entire divinity and yet mysteriously also remained entirely human (Boyd, 2009, p. 113).  The Kenotic view holds that Jesus Christ relinquished, or emptied himself of his divine attributes while he walked the Earth, yet of course was still entirely holy and full of grace and truth (Boyd, 2009, p. 113).  The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary calls the interpretation of this theological issue “profoundly difficult” (Douglas & Tenney, 2011, p. 802).  A great deal has been written on the theological issue of the mystery of the Incarnation of the God-man.  Never the less, this essay will attempt to demonstrate that the Kenotic view is the correct understanding of the God-man.  

The Classic View

Philippians 2:5-9 (ESV) says “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  In the way Christ lived, he fulfilled his own teaching recorded in Matthew 23:12 (ESV) which states “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”  Those holding the classical view have pointed to Paul's desire to describe the contrast between Jesus (the second Adam who overcame sin), and the first Adam who yielded to sin (Terry, 1901, p. 293).  Those of the classic view tend to believe that the statement “emptied himself” does not refer to a changing of Christ's divine attributes, but is an allusion to Christ's humbling himself in his life and his death on the cross (Terry, 1901, p. 295).  Those of the classic view hold that their view best explains divine humility (Pardue, 2012, p.271).  The primary debate centers around Philippians chapter two.  The Greek word “kenosis” actually never occurs in the NT, but the cognate verb “kenoo” does occur in Philippians 2:7 (Douglas & Tenney, 2011, p. 802).  The classic view holds to a more figurative interpretation of the Greek word “kenoo” (Douglas & Tenney, 2011, p. 802).    But there are many scriptures that must be taken into account.  The synoptic gospels give theologians the detailed facts on the ministry of Jesus Christ on Earth.  We must examine those gospels to understand the mystery of the God-man. 

Jesus the Man

The important question is: Was Jesus limited in his divine attributes during his time on Earth?  It is recorded in the gospel of Mark that in response to a lack of belief in certain areas Jesus was unable to perform but limited miracles (Mark 6:5).  Jesus also demonstrated an ability to be surprised (Mark 6.6).  Jesus was unable to prevent many of his followers from no longer following him (John 6:66).  A very powerful statement by Jesus Christ himself in Mark 13:32 (ESV) says “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  Jesus did not know the time of his return.  He never ceased being God, but he did surrender certain measures of his divine attributes.  The lack of knowledge demonstrated by Jesus in certain cases is a clear indication that some sort of change took place in his nature (Loke, 2012, p. 583).  The limited knowledge of Jesus is perhaps the most important aspect of the kenotic view, because it shows a clear contradiction, one cannot have omniscience and limited knowledge at the same time, it doesn't make sense (Loke, 2012, p. 584).  Atheists have claimed that the incarnation, the paradox of the God-man is incoherent and impossible as described in the classic view (Loke, 2012, p. 584).  In that case, they would be correct.  It is a logical contradiction.  Therefore the Kenotic view provides a model that is not necessarily logically contradictory.  When Jesus came, he came as a man, entirely human, choosing to adopt the role of a servant, despite all of his glory.  As it was recorded in Isaiah 53:2: “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.”

Jesus the God

Similar to Karl Barth's view of the God-man, there is no need for Jesus to be considered any less than God while relinquishing or veiling certain divine attributes (McCormack, 2006, p. 248).  Isaiah perceived the coming of the God-man in this way: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).  John wrote of Jesus in this way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).  John 1:18 (ESV) states “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.”  While Jesus Christ seemed to be limited in his divine abilities during his time on Earth, he also performed many miracles (Matthew 9:2-8, 9:20-22, 9:27-30, 14:15-21, 14:25-27, Mark 2:3-12, Luke 7:12-15, John 11:38-44).  While the miracles were probably done through the power of the Spirit with the guidance of God the Father, none the less, Jesus Christ remained fully God, whether as a human, or crucified, or resurrected and glorified.  


The Kenotic view on the Incarnation can be broken up in to many variants and differing views (Elwell, 2001, p. 651).  It is possible that Jesus lived his human life entirely emptied of divine attributes and simply did miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit within him, through the blessing and guidance of the Father (Douglas & Tenney, 2011, p. 803).  It is also possible that Jesus exercised divine attributes specifically assigned to him by the Father and willingly gave up the rest of his divine attributes (McCormack, 2006, p. 246).  The doctrine that Jesus gave up all of his divine attributes can be considered strong ontological Kenoticism (Loke, 2012, p. 586).  This view is held and defended prominently by Wolfgang Friedrich Gess a German Theologian (Loke, 2012, p. 587).  The position that Jesus relinquished certain divine attributes while retaining others can be considered standard ontological Kenoticism (Loke, 2012, p. 586).  The third position would be that Jesus Christ entirely carried all of his divine attributes but did not exercise them during his earthly ministry, which can be considered Functional Kenoticism (Loke, 2012, p. 586).  The kenotic view began in the writings of Gottfried Thomasius in the 1800s, and was formed into a coherent theology in Germany and England in the late 1800s and early 1900s (Elwell, 2001, p. 651-652).

The Interaction of the Trinity during the Earthly life of Jesus Christ

Jesus Christ during his earthly ministry came primarily for the reason of living a perfect sinless life, and dying on the cross for the sins of mankind (John 12:27).  But it can also be said that Jesus came to set an example of how his followers should live (John 18:37).  If that were not true, he would not have taught, but simply given his life at the appropriate time.  But instead Jesus Christ taught and performed miracles, and before his ascension delivered the Holy Spirit to his followers, commissioning them as missionaries to the world (Acts 1:7-8).  Along those lines of thinking, it is reasonable to believe that Jesus Christ was literally setting the example not only in his words, but also in his actions.  He demonstrated and spoke to his total reliance upon the Father while he was on Earth.  John 5:19 (ESV) says “So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.”  Since Jesus is God, why would he need to necessarily rely entirely upon the Father?  Jesus was setting a literal example of how believers studying the gospels ought to live.  In the same way perhaps Jesus interacted with the Holy Spirit much as the Holy Spirit uses believers today to continue to carry the message of Christ and perform good works.  Jesus himself did say that even greater works would be done by his disciples than those he did (John 14:12).  Of course Jesus was most certainly referring to his miracles and evangelism work, not his atonement for sins on the cross.    Jesus taught a great deal, and set the example for Christians by his perfect actions.  To fully embrace the act of being a human and setting that example must then include relinquishing certain divine attributes. 
Jesus did many miracles while on Earth.  Did he do those miracles by his own power, by the power of the Father, or by the Holy Spirit?  Did Jesus have the Spirit during his ministry?  Isaiah 11:2 (ESV) says “And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”  Isaiah prophesied about the coming of Jesus Christ and the Spirit resting upon him.  In addition John 1:32 (ESV) says “Then John testified, "I saw the Holy Spirit descending like a dove from heaven and resting upon him.”  Kenoticism rests upon the relinquishing of divine attributes by Jesus Christ, by choice.  It can be inferred that the God-man relinquished certain divine attributes, and performed his miracles by cooperation with the Holy Spirit, with the blessing and guidance of God the Father. 

Theologians and their Views on Kenoticism

Gottfried Thomasius was the founder of the idea of kenotic theology (Elwell, 2001, p. 651).  He was a Lutheran German theologian who lived from 1802 to 1875 (Elwell, 2001, p. 651).  Charles Gore was another one of the key defenders of the Kenotic view of the incarnation (Poidevin, 2013, p. 214).  Gore took the text from Philippians 2 as necessarily interpreted as an emptying of divine attributes so that Christ would be fully human (Poidevin, 2013, p. 215).  Karl Barth was a classic defender of the position, but he did not even consider his view to be kenotic necessarily (McCormack, 2006, p. 248).  Barth was absolutely set upon expounding the absolute deity of Christ, as God whether on Earth or in heaven (McCormack, 2006, p. 248).  Barth believed that nothing need be subtracted from the God-man for him to take on the role of a servant, and that he willfully veiled his attributes, but nothing was subtracted; a similar position to Functional Kenoticism (McCormack, 2006, p. 248).  The kenotic view of the incarnation is not necessarily an orthodox view, but it is a biblically sound position and does not invalidate the statement of faith made by the council of Chalcedron in 451 AD (McCormack, 2006). 


In conclusion, the wide range of Kenotic views regarding the Incarnation of the God-man provide a powerful theological understanding of the mystery of our blessed Lord Jesus Christ.  The dimensions of interaction and humble reliance upon God the Father and God the Spirit, shown by God our Lord Jesus Christ during his time on Earth makes for a dynamic understanding of the mystery of the Trinity.  Jesus Christ is Lord, and indeed lived the perfect life as an example to all future Christians on how they ought to live: in total reliance upon God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit, upon the forgiveness found in the cross of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:11).  As the writer of  Hebrews 2:9-17 (ESV) put it: “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.  For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying,“I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”


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Douglas, J. D., and Merrill C. Tenney. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011.

ESV: Study Bible : English Standard Version. ESV Text ed. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Bibles, 2007.

Elwell, Walter A. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 2001.

Evans, C. Stephen. "Exploring Kenotic Theology: The Self Emptying of God." Oxford University Press Xii (2006).

Loke, Andrew. "The Incarnation and Jesus’ Apparent Limitation in Knowledge." New Blackfriars, 2012.

Lutzer, Erwin W. The Doctrines That Divide: A Fresh Look at the Historic Doctrines That Separate Christians. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1998.

McCormack, Bruce. "Karl Barth’sChristology as a Resource for a Reformed Version of Kenoticism." International Journal of Systematic Theology 8, no. 3 (2006).

Pardue, Stephen. "Kenosis and ItsDiscontents: Towards an Augustinian Account of Divine Humility." Scottish Journal of Theology, 2012.

Poidevin, Robin. "Kenosis, Necessity and Incarnation." The Heythrop Journal, 2013, 214-27.