Question: "What is kenoticism / kenotic theology?"
Answer: Kenoticism, also known as kenotic theology or kenotic Christology, is an unbiblical view of Christ’s nature. Kenoticism teaches that the divinity of the Son of God was somehow lost or lessened when the Lord took on human flesh and entered our world.
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. Jesus “emptied” Himself, according to kenoticism, of His divine attributes.
The biblical truth is that Jesus Christ fully possessed both a divine nature and a human nature, and the two natures co-existed in what is often called the hypostatic union. Kenoticism is an attempt to redefine the nature of Christ. Interestingly, it is only the divine nature of Christ that kenoticism calls into question, not His human nature. Most people 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.
If Jesus divested Himself of some of His divine attributes, as some teach, then we have some theological problems. First, emptying Himself of any part of His divinity would render Jesus less than fully divine. If He had temporarily laid aside His omniscience, omnipotence, etc., He would have ceased being the divine Son of God. But God cannot stop being God, even for a moment.
Another significant problem with kenotic Christology involves the eternal destiny of all who follow Christ. 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, which says that the Son of God “emptied” Himself as He took on the form of a servant? In what way did Jesus “empty” Himself? We begin with context. Verses 1—5 describe the attitude believers 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. Believers do not put off their human attributes and become something else, any more than Jesus put off His divine attributes. Rather, they look to Jesus as their example and subjugate their impulses and desires for the sake of others.
Christ’s “emptying” of Himself was the laying aside of the privileges of divinity, not divinity itself. In heaven, the Son of God possessed infinite honor and glory and adoration. But He chose to leave that position of honor, and He “made himself nothing” (Philippians 2:7). When He came to earth, He veiled His glory and chose to occupy the position of a slave. The kenosis spoken of in Philippians 2:7 was a self-renunciation but not an emptying of deity. Jesus never ceased to be God, and He did not exchange deity for humanity.
What Jesus did was set aside His heavenly glory. And He voluntarily refrained from using His divinity to make His way easier. His miracles were not done to benefit Himself but to help others. During His earthly ministry, Christ completely submitted Himself to the will of the Father (John 5:19). John Walvoord explains it this way: “The act of kenosis . . . may . . . be properly understood to mean that Christ surrendered no attribute of Deity, but that He did voluntarily restrict their independent use in keeping with His purpose of living among men and their limitations” (Jesus Christ Our Lord, p. 144).
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 restricting 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 Christ ever without the fullness of divinity (see Colossians 2:9).
Discussions of kenoticism are complicated by the fact that sometimes the term kenosis is used as a synonym for kenoticism. The Bible teaches the kenosis of Christ, but it does not teach that Jesus gave up any divine attributes. Kenosis must be understood within the larger context of the whole of Scripture. And when teachers speak of kenosis, we must be sure to understand how they are using the term. Kenoticism is a heresy that takes the biblical concept of kenosis too far.