What Is Kenotic Christology?

Kenotic Christology is the belief that the Son in the incarnation ceased to be God or gave up some or all of his divine attributes temporarily until his ascension to the right hand of God. Kenotic comes from the Greek verb kenoō in Philippians 2:7 which can be translated “to empty.” Therefore, proponents of kenotic Christology argue that Jesus emptied himself of his divine attributes until his exaltation to the right hand of God. This understanding of the incarnation is in contrast to the historic belief in the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ. Chalcedonian Christology teaches that Jesus, from the moment of the incarnation, is fully God and fully man at the same time in one person and that he never emptied himself of any of his divine attributes.

Kenotic Christology errs in failing to understand the nature of the incarnation, the relationship between the human and divine natures of Christ with respect to his person, and it overlooks many passages in the Gospels which mention his divine attributes. Jesus before his ascension knew all things (Matt 26:34; John 2:24-25; 16:30; 21:17), was omnipresent (John 1:47-50), was good as God is good (Mark 10:18), forgave sin (Mark 2:7), was sinless and perfect as God is perfect (Matt 5:48; John 8:46), and received worship (Matt 2:11; 28:9, 17; Luke 24:52; John 9:38; 20:28). He has never changed with respect to his divine nature which by definition is immutable (Heb 13:8).

The Word became flesh by taking upon himself a human nature. This human nature which he received from Mary did not replace his divine nature, but was added to his person. The one who existed as God from all eternity became man while remaining fully God. To argue that Jesus ceased to possess the divine attributes is to say that he ceased to be God because God’s divine nature is his attributes. His attributes are essential properties, not accidental ones. God is his attributes. Kenotic Christology therefore must deny divine simplicity by dividing Christ’s divine attributes up into some that he leaves behind and others that he keeps. If Christ emptied himself of all his divine attributes, he would not be worthy of worship because he would no longer be God by nature since a nature is defined by the unique attributes that distinguish it from other natures.

The most popular verse that is cited in favor of kenotic Christology is Mark 13:32: “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” It is therefore argued that Jesus temporarily gave up his omniscience or knowledge of all things in the incarnation since he did not know when he would return. But the proper interpretation of this verse must take into account the distinction that exists between the humanity and deity of Christ. Because Jesus is fully God and fully man at the same time, as God he knows everything and as man he grew in knowledge as we do. Jesus both knew all things as God and did not know all things as man at the same time because he is both God and man. With respect to his human nature as man, Jesus did not know when his coming would be. But with respect to his divine nature as God, he knows all things which includes the day of his coming. Thus, Jesus here is speaking with respect to his human nature.

The second most favorite verse in favor of kenotic Christology is Philippians 2:7 which speaks of Christ emptying himself.  Since Jesus “emptied himself,” it is concluded that he emptied himself of his divine attributes when he became man. But to say that Jesus “emptied himself” is not to say that he emptied himself of something he had, but that he himself is the one who is emptied. The verb “emptied” communicates the idea of being humbled or making oneself nothing. That is why the ESV correctly translates the verb as “made himself nothing.” It is a description of the humiliation of Christ through taking upon himself human nature. It is humiliation through addition, not subtraction. See James R. White’s discussion of this verse in The Forgotten Trinity for a more detailed treatment.

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