Kenotic Theology

Michael Bremmer

Michael Bremmer

The History of the Church, its creeds, and Scripture all adamantly assert the truth that: "The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity being very and eternal God, of one substance, and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man's nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person without conversion, composition, or confusion, Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man" (WCF 8,2).

This doctrine, fought for and held by the Church for some 2000 years, and, most important, rooted firmly in the word of God, is denied by all forms of kenotic theology.

Kenotic theology, which arose out of German liberalism of the middle of the nineteenth century, teaches that at the incarnation Jesus Christ surrendered some or all of His divine attributes. This theory is sometimes erroneously called kenosis. There is a true kenosis spoken of in Philippians 2.5-11, however, as it will be shown, kenosis of Scripture is different from kenotic theology.

Kenotic theology most often regards Christ as surrendering "relative divine attributes" only, meaning, at the incarnation Christ gave up "omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence" while retaining His "immanent attributes" of holiness, love, mercy and truth. The distinction in the attributes, theologically speaking, is real. However, the application kenotic theology makes with it regarding Jesus Christ is not.

One form of kenotic Theology, taught by Thomasius and others, states that Christ temporarily surrendered, "relative attributes of omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience, but after the resurrection resumed these attributes" (Berkhof, History of Doctrine, p. 121). This view also holds that Jesus nevertheless maintains a "divine consciousness" but it is unclear, at least to me, what this means, or how it is possible. W. F. Gess went further by teaching, "at the incarnation (Jesus) literally ceased from His cosmic functions and His eternal consciousness, and reduced Himself absolutely to the conditions and limits of human nature so that His consciousness became purely that of a human soul" (Berkhof, History of Doctrine, p. 121).

Gess's view is more consistent with kenotic theology's goal of guarding the absolute manhood of Christ. While this goal is commendable and necessary, and truly "attempts to render conceivable the profound truth of a sympathizing, self-sacrificing God," kenotic theology must be rejected for the following reasons:

(1) Biblical support for kenotic theology is based only on a single misinterpreted passage of Scripture.

(2) Kenotic theology must maintain that Christ is still divine apart from some or all of His divine attributes.

(3) Kenotic theology is a clear departure from the historic Christian Faith.

Before detailing these objections to kenotic theology it will be helpful to begin with a few presuppositions: (1) The Scriptures are our final authority. Arguments based on philosophy, psychology, logic, history, etc., may be useful and has a place in discussion, but ultimately there is only one question, What does the scripture say?

(2) There is and will always be theological tensions. Theological tensions occur when two seemly contradictory truths are place side by side. The tensions become apparent when we are unable to harmonize them together. For instance, How can the sovereignty of God and the freewill of man exist in the same universe? How can God be One in substance and exist in three persons? How can Jesus Christ possess both a human conciseness, mind, heart, and will, and a divine consciousness, mind, heart, and will? Yet the Scriptures clearly teach all.

Regarding the person of Christ, Scripture does not a explain what effect the two natures have on one another, or how both wills worked together, or independently; or how both natures constitute one Person; or how can the Person of Jesus Christ be fully human and yet very God; or how the Person of Jesus Christ can be very God and fully human, and there in lies the tension, and the door to heresy; for to make "sense" of one will always be at the expense of the other-- as history has proven.

How shall we reconcile the Bible doctrine Christ's Deity with the Bible doctrine His human nature Christ? R. A. Torrey has well answered:

"That is not our main business. Our first business is to find out what the various passages mean in the natural grammatical interpretation. Then if we can reconcile them, well; if not, believe both and leave reconciliation to increasing knowledge. It is a thoroughly vicious principle of interpretation that we must interpret every passage in the Bible so that we can readily reconcile it with every other passage. This gives rise to one-sided theology.. . . Our business is to find out the plainly intended sense of the passage in hand as determined by usage of words, grammatical construction and context. Remember that in many cases two truths that seem utterly irreconcilable or perfectly contradictory to us now, with increased knowledge, seen to beautifully harmonize. Truths that still seem to us to be contradictory perfectly harmonize in the infinite wisdom of God, and will some day, when we approach more nearly to God's omniscience, perfectly harmonize in our minds. How fearlessly the Bible puts the Deity and manhood of Jesus Christ in closest juxtaposition" and so must we! (Torrey, What the Bible Teaches).

The solution is simple. We must accept what we do not fully understand, but the advantages far out number the disadvantages as Warfield has observed: "No doubt it is difficult to conceive of two complete and perfect natures united in one person; but once conceived, all that the Scriptures say about Jesus follow as a matter of course" (Warfield, The Human development of Jesus p. 165).

Although we must accept tensions in theology, this does not mean we should never try to explain or harmonize them. However, we cannot accept any such attempts that begin with unbiblical premises, which reach unbiblical conclusions, or reach conclusions that cast doubt on other doctrines long established through a careful exegesis.

Kenotic theology fails on all three points. Its premise, based on a misinterpretation of Phil. 2.5-11, is not biblical. Its conclusions are therefore incorrect, and it is contrary to the true doctrine that is the very heart of the historic Christian faith and one still held by almost every conservative Theologian and Scholar today.

Objections to the Kenotic View Explained

(1) Biblical support for Kenotic theology is based only on a single misinterpreted passage of Scripture. The passage in question is Phil. 2:5-11, in particular verse 6-7: "Who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasp, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men." It is from the word "emptied," that it is argued Jesus surrendered some or all of His divine attributes. For instance, Dake, in his popular Dake's Annotated Reference Bible list six things Christ emptied Himself of including: "His divine attributes and outward powers that He had with the Father from eternity" (NT, p. 218). But an honest interpretation of this passage will conclude that it says nothing at all about what Christ emptied Himself of. It only tells us how Christ emptied Himself: "but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross" (vs. 7-8). That is how Christ emptied Himself. Nowhere is it mention that He gave up all or part of His divinity.

Furthermore, many have argued that translating ekenosen emptied is incorrect. The word is better translated "to nullify, make of no effect." Accordingly, the NIV translates the word, "But made Himself nothing." Moises Silvia notes:

"Moreover, the well established figurative meaning of the verb, to nullify, make of no effect,' is elsewhere used by Paul and suits the present passage as well. For example, in Rom. 4.14 Paul states that if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith has been emptied' (kekenotai he pistis), but no one thinks of asking, Of what is faith made empty?' Clearly, the idea is that faith would come to naught, as the following clause confirms: and the promise has been nullified'" (The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary: Philippians, p. 119)

(2) It must be maintained that Christ is still divine apart from some or all of His divine attributes. If this were not so, then Christ is openly declared to be just an ordinary man-- clearly heretical and deserving no comment. However, is it possible for Christ to be without some or all of His divine attributes and still be God? This is the central issue.

Shakespeare has stated, "A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet." True, but take away its fragrance--and call it what you will--it is not a rose. It may be a stinkweed. In other words, a substance is always defined by its attributes. A rose is a rose not because of its name, but because of its characteristics associated with the name. A rose is a flower of particular aroma, texture, substance and form. Although different cultures may give it a different name, its essence will not change and it will smell as sweet. Yet change one of its characteristics and it no longer is a rose, despite rigorous assertions to the contrary.

To change the attributes of a substance is to change its essence. To change the essence is to change what it is. However, the Scriptures clearly tell us that God is immutable; His essence cannot change (Mal. 3:6).

The often used illustration attempting to explain kenoticism, that if I take off my shoes I don't cease to be who I am, therefore, for Jesus to surrender some or all of his relative attributes does not change who He is, slurs common sense. A person is not defined by the shoes he wears; however, deity is a part who and what Jesus Christ is, therefore, so is the attributes of deity. Walvoord rightly states:

"It is impossible to surrender an attribute without changing the character of the essence to which it belongs. To rob sunlight of any of its various colors would change the character of sunlight. To rob God of any attribute would destroy His deity. Hence, if Christ did not possess all the attributes of the Godhead, it could not be said to that He possessed true deity.. . .This is a far more serious problem than that occasion by the humiliation of Christ" (Walvoord, Jesus Christ Our Lord, p.142).

Furthermore, it is obvious the essence of a substance is all its attributes, therefore, the distinction made between "relative" and "immanent" as related to the kenosis of Christ is groundless. More important, there is no Biblical evidence one class is some how more important to the Deity of Christ then the other. The fact is both are essential to Deity, for Deity is Biblically defined by all of the divine attributes collectively, and not by any arbitrarily defined classification.

The Bible teaches plainly that God is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, eternal, Holy, righteous, immutable, sovereign, faithful, good, patient, merciful, and loving. If a being possesses all these attributes, He is God and worthy of our praise and worship. If he lacks even one, then by definition, on authority of the word of God, he is not God.

(3) Kenotic theology is a clear departure from the faith of the Church. Hodge rightly observes:

"If the Bible be the only infallible rule of faith and practice; and if the Bible be a plain book, and if the Spirit guides the people of God (not the external Church, or body of mere professing Christians) into the knowledge of truth, then the presumption is invincible that what all true Christians believe to be the sense of Scripture is its sense" (Systematic Theology, p. 2.437).

The Council of Nicaea (325), Council of Constantinople (381), the Athanasian Creed, the Creed of the council of Chalcedon (451), Westminster Confession of Faith, to mention just a few, all affirm that Jesus is both God and man.

The following Theologians and Scholars all affirm the full Deity and manhood of the Person of Jesus Christ and denied that He in any way surrendered any of His divine attributes:

"As devout scholars have studied this problem, they have concluded that Christ retained His omnipotence, His omniscience, and even His omnipresence while He was in a physical body on earth. Instead of emptying Himself or removing these central attributes of Deity, Christ willingly did not use His divine attributes to make His life on earth easier."

"Some hold the erroneous view that in His incarnation God the Son, in some sense, laid aside certain attributes that belong to His divine nature" (Practical Christian Theology, p. 158).

"By taking on human nature, he accepted certain limitations upon the functioning of his divine attributes. These limitations were not the result of a loss of divine attributes but of the addition of human attributes. (Erickson, Christian Theology)

Although Erickson rightly understands that Jesus did not discard Deity, I also disagree with his solution of the limitation on his divine nature with the taking of human nature. If Jesus did not use divine attributes in certain circumstances, it was not out of necessity, but of choice. Erickson's solution, like kenotic theology, creates more problems then it is alleged to solve. For example, how can human nature limit the almighty power of God?

"Liberal Theologians suggest Christ emptied Himself of His deity, but it is evident from His life and ministry that He did not for His deity was displayed on numerous occasions....The 'emptying' of Christ was taking on an additional nature, a human nature with its limitations, His deity was never surrendered" (Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theologyp. 228-229)

"This misconception states that kenosis means our Lord actually gave up His attributes of Deity or at least the relative attributes of omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience. Biblically this is false, and theologically impossible. If He surrendered any attribute then He ceased to be God during His earthly life. There would then be no way He could have said what He did in Jn. 10.30 that He and the Father were One in essence. Christ did not denude Himself of any aspect of His deity" (Ryrie, Basic Theology, p. 262).

Consider also that Jesus could not say to Thomas, if kenotic theology is true, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" (Jn. 14.9).

"In what sense does Paul mean that Christ 'emptied Himself'? Certainly not in that He gave up any of essential divine attributes. The morphe of God could not be given up without His ceasing to be who and what He was" (Buswell, Systematic Theology, p. 2.24). Buswell has this interesting footnote: "Briefly the kenosis doctrine was an attempt to retain creedal adherence to the deity of Christ while allowing that He may have been in error (being emptied of omniscience) in regard to such matters as the inerrancy of the Scriptures, The kenosis doctrine was relatively short lived. The liberals of our time simply reject the teaching that Jesus ever existed in the form of God" (nn 2.24).

"It is evident that the Scriptures teach, when taken as a whole, that Christ merely surrendered the independent exercise of some of his relative or transitive attributes. He did not surrender the absolute or immanent attributes in any sense; He was always perfectly Holy, just, merciful, truthful, and faithful; and He always loved with all the intensity of His being. But He emptied Himself by giving up the independent exercise of His relative attributes. Thus He was omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent as the Father granted Him the exercise of these attributes. This is involved in His giving up the glory which He had with the Father before the world (Jn. 17.5) and His taking on the form of a servant (Phil. 2.6) (Thiessen 226-17).

A. H. Strong, Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, Lewis Berkhof, and many others all affirm the full deity and manhood of Christ, and expressly deny all forms of Kenotic Theology. The mass of testimony cannot be dismissed lightly. By this I do not mean we should blindly follow tradition. We must break with the abuses of tradition, but not with tradition itself. We must be like Calvin who was the greatest theologian of his day, yet was said to be "unwilling to give up the consensus of interpretation" (Silva, Has the Church Misread the Bible?, p. 96).

Other then those already mention, the only Theologians or Scholars I am aware of who held to Kenotic Theology are H. R. Mackintosh, and Charles Gore, neither whom need fear being accused of orthodoxy. Kenneth Copeland (hardly a theologian or scholar) also holds to Kenotic Theology:

"(Most Christians) mistakenly believe that Jesus was able to work wonders, to perform miracles, and to live above sin because He had divine power that we don't have. Thus, they've never really aspired to live like He lived. They don't realize that when Jesus came to earth, He voluntarily gave up that advantage, living His life here not as God, but as a man. He had no innate supernatural powers. He had no ability to perform miracles until after He was anointed by the Holy Spirit" (Cited in MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos , P. 276).

Our salvation depends on a real faith in the true Christ. The teaching of Scripture is that in the incarnation of Christ, His assuming human nature, He remained truly God, with all the attributes of deity. He was, is, and forever will be the God-man.

Rev. 08.28.05

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