A Biblical and Theological
Answer to the False Doctrine of Kenosis
An increasingly prevalent teaching in evangelical circles, particularly in charismatic circles, is the doctrine of Kenosis. This false teaching is drawn from impure wells, it is dangerous because of the other false doctrines it leads to, and it flies in the face of the heart of Christian teaching. What is it? The doctrine teaches that the Messiah, in order to assume the form of a servant and become incarnate (into human flesh), had to give up some, several, or even all the powers and attributes of God and "live as a mere man." The advocates of this heresy, in an effort to assume an orthodox posture, try to say that the Son somehow "remains God," though He has given up all parts of that being. This teaching, which denies so much of the heart of the orthodox faith, comes from the misinterpretation and misconstruction of one Greek word.
This word, and the doctrine it describes, refer to the deep, mysterious, but vitally important passage of Philippians 2:5-8, and especially in verse 7, where it says Christ "made himself of no reputation," or "emptied himself." The word in the original is ekenosen, from the root word kenoo, which can mean "to empty." The other references to the word are Romans 4:14, where the meaning is "made void," 1 Corinthians 1:17, where it means "of none effect," 1 Corinthians 9:15, where it means "make void," and 2 Corinthians 9:3, where it means "to be in vain." These references all refer to abstract principles, such as faith, preaching, or boasting--none of them refer to a person, or even to an object. Therefore, the use of the word as it is used in Philippians 2:7 is unique. The question, which shall be repeated later is "of what did Christ empty Himself?" The teachers of Kenosis say that what Christ did was to "empty Himself of all power."
The doctrinal area in which we are dealing is not academic, it involves the very heart and center of our faith. It is also not just a matter for scholars, but is for all of us. Kenotic teaching has become prominent in charismatic circles, and is the basis for much of what they promulgate. Indeed, much of the weird theology that surrounds the so-called "faith" movement is based on a Kenotic understanding of the incarnation, combined with a new-age-like leap of logic that says that since Jesus left His powers and attributes behind and lived as a mere man, we born-again believers are ". . . just as much an Incarnation of God as Jesus was" (Kenneth Copeland)
In another leap of logic, these teachers move then to the Mormon-like doctrine of apotheosis (we are little Gods). This trend so concerned Walter Martin that the last thing he wrote before going home to be with the Lord was a contribution to a book refuting these theological trends among TV evangelists.1 This paper on Kenosis is not a detailed analysis, but is instead an expanded outline with footnotes, covering these major areas:
1. "About the middle of the nineteenth century a new form of Christology made its appearance in the Kenotic theories."2 This is how Berkhof introduces the subject. He then delineates three forms of Kenotic teaching--the first, and least offensive, seems to fit the general view: "Thomasius distinguishes between the absolute and essential attributes of God . . . and His relative attributes, which are not essential to the Godhead, such as omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience; and maintains that the Logos while retaining His divine self-consciousness, laid the latter aside, in order to take unto Himself veritable human nature."3
2. "The essence of the original kenotic view is stated clearly by J. M. Creed. 'The Divine Logos by His Incarnation divested Himself of His divine attributes of omniscience and omnipotence, so that in His incarnate life the divine Person is revealed and solely revealed through a human consciousness.'"4
3. Charles Hodge classes this view under Modern Forms of the Doctrine [Christology], and includes it under a class of doctrines called Theistical Christology taught by various German theological liberals of that era.5 One form of the view is as follows. "...that the Eternal Logos, by a process of self-limitation, divested Himself of all his divine attributes. He ceased to be omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. He reduced Himself, so to speak, to the dimensions of a man."6
This seems to be the general view of the entire "faith message" school of thought, and it is becoming prominent in other charismatic circles as well.
1. "Jesus hadn't come to earth as God; He'd come as a man. He'd laid aside His divine power and had taken on the form of a human being--with all its limitations."7
2. "They [orthodox 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...They don't realize that when Jesus came to earth, He voluntarily gave up that advantage [deity] 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... He ministered as a man anointed by the Holy Spirit."8
The writer of this paper has encountered this teaching in other theological circles, and in at least one other prominent tele-evangelist who is not from the "faith message" camp.
Includes quotations from noted Evangelical Scholars on the subject.
The context of Phil. 2:5-11 is that Christ emptied Himself by taking on the form of a servant. Indeed, the overall issue, from 2:1 through the end of verse 15, is on various forms of outward expression, Christ being the example for the life of the saints in Philippi.
1. Paul was stressing to the Philippians that they should be self-sacrificing, and should not have personal glory in mind as they live their life. Then, he used the Incarnation as an example. (2:1-5)
2. Christ, says Paul, was in the form (morphe, an outward expression of an inward reality) of God, and did not consider this Glory, this expression of equality with the Father something to be grasped, or held on to (see John 17:1-5, 24).
3. Most modern translations say in verse 7 "emptied Himself", but the King James and the New King James read, "made Himself of no reputation." About this difference, one evangelical scholar wrote "The A.V., while not an exact translation, goes far to express the act of the Lord."9 ( In this quote, A.V. stands for Authorized Version, or King James). Then it says, "taking the form of a servant." As we have been talking about outward expressions, vainglory, outward form, etc., and as that is the subject from here through verse 15, the plain sense of scripture here is that Christ's self-emptying was of the outward glory and majesty of Godhood, and that He accomplished that action by taking the form of a servant. This, of course, is what Paul is asking the Philippians to do. Context is vital here--Paul is not telling the Philippians to lay aside, discard, or disregard their natural abilities and talents, (attributes and powers), he is telling them to submit them to the will of God and the good of the whole church.
a. Possibly because of the negative theological background for it, B.B. Warfield went so far as to call the literal translation of kenoo as "emptied Himself" a "mistranslation."10
b. "Nothing in this passage teaches that the Eternal Word (John 1.1) emptied Himself of either His divine nature or His attributes, but only the outward and visible manifestation of the Godhead."11
c. "He emptied, stripped Himself if the insignia of Majesty"12 (Emphasis added)
d. "When occasion demanded, He exercised His divine attributes."13
4. Verses 8-11 continue the thought--Christ is "...found in appearance as a man...", and continued His voluntary humiliation through to the Cross, then is exalted by the Father (as He discussed with the Father in John 17).
5. Other Scriptural references that establish the same principal:
a. John 1:1-14. After laying out His perfections, [(1) "The Word was God"--Deity; (2) "He was in the beginning with God," Eternity; (3) "All things were made through Him..." Creator; (4) "In Him was life..." Self Existence;] John says "and the Word became flesh." It is not that God the Son gave up anything, but that He added something--He took humanity to Himself.
b. 2 Cor 8:9 "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich." He gave up the external glories of His riches, but did He really give up ownership? No--in His earthly ministry, He claimed to be Lord of the Sabbath, and exercised dominion over natural phenomena, disease and demonic forces, and even demonstrated His possession of the power of life and death. His poverty did not consist as much in what He gave up (for He still retained title to it) as in what He took on--our nature.
c. 2 Cor 5:21 "For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." In His act of atonement, did He give up His own essential Holiness? No, again, it was not that He gave up anything, it was that He added something--He took our sins upon Himself.
The first, and most obvious reference is His personal conversation with the Father in John 17--He asks (in a "man to man, equal to equal" way) for the return of His Glory. He never mentions the return of His power or attributes--because He still retained them!
1. Omniscience--John 11:11-14 ("...when Jesus was fifty miles away...")14 John 2:24-25, 6:64, 70-71. As for the instances when He seems to be claiming ignorance, they have to do with Him speaking from His humanity, and taking our place, and involve a complete understanding of the orthodox teaching concerning the relationship between the Divine and Human in Christ, which will be discussed in section IV.
4. Providence: Heb 1:1-3--Note that "upholding all things" was predicated of Him in the context of His earthly ministry of declaring God's truth, and before His atonement, resurrection, and exaltation. Col. 1:17--"In Him all things consist [hold together]" The universe is upheld by His word of power--He holds it together--that is an essential part of who He is. There is no intimation anywhere in scripture that He gave up this function upon Incarnation.
1. Paul says that in Christ ". . .are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge," (2:3) and ". . . Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily." (2:8-9, emphasis added)
2. The argument might be (and has been) made that those verses apply to Christ in His exaltation, and not in His humiliation. First, that logic leans to the Gnostic idea of "progression," that the Logos after His exaltation was materially and essentially different (and improved) as a person from what He was during His humiliation. This is the very idea that Paul was fighting in the book of Colossians! The clincher, however, lies in the earlier verses in chapter 1: ". . . It pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself...through the blood of His cross." (1:19-20) All the fullness of God dwelt in Him bodily during His earthly ministry!
The theologians who crafted Kenotic doctrine were trying to deal with two problems. The first problem was in how to deal with those texts of scripture (as used by the cults) which seem to indicate that Christ was less than fully God, yet do justice to the obvious Biblical teaching that He was "Very God of Very God." The second problem was posed by their understanding that He lived His life in submission to the will of the Father, and largely as a man with a full indwelling of the Holy Spirit. They could not reconcile that in their minds with His full deity. The problem with these teachers was that they were theological liberals--they did not accept the verbal, plenary, inspiration of the Bible. Because of this, they crafted an erroneous philosophical theological answer, and ignored the fact that the problems were already solved by scripture, and had been fully worked out by the teachers and leaders of the early church during the period from A.D. 250-451. In their effort to improve on the Council of Chalcedon, they created many more problems than those they sought to solve--and did not really solve what they had originally perceived to be problems in the orthodox faith.
A. The philosophical and theological bases for the Doctrine of Kenosis are highly suspect.
The thought process began with an incorrect concept of God as the Absolute and Almighty God.
1. Thomasius of Erlangen, one of the first and leading proponents, ". . . distinguishes between the absolute and essential attributes of God," and taught that omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence ". . . are not essential to the Godhead..."15
This is patently ridiculous, and there is absolutely no Biblical basis for classing the three "omni" attributes as non-essential for Deity. Philosophical theologians may find a way to make this add up, but in the words of one of this century's great Bible teachers, ". . .There is no other possible alternative between an absolutely supreme God, and no God at all."16 It is impossible to conceive of any being worthy of the title of I AM who does not possess the essential attributes continually posited to God by the Bible. The Bible never mentions God as anything but absolute. The three attributes in question, absolute Knowledge, Potency, and Presence, are foundational to who Jehovah is. The sarcastic charges made by Jehovah against false "gods" usually center in their ignorance, impotence, and immobility (Deut 4:28, Is 45:20, Jer. 10:5, 15). In comparison to idols, Jeremiah says "He who is the Portion of Jacob is not like these, for He is the Maker of all things...the LORD Almighty is His name." (10:16) Indeed, if one reads the awesome passages like Is 40, Job 38:1-42:6, Ps 90, Rom 11:33-36, etc., as well as the countless other verses and passages that extol and marvel at the greatness of the Almighty Jehovah, there can be no other conclusion but that God is Absolute. There is no Biblical way that the Son could give up his divine knowledge, potency, and presence, and remain "in essence" God. The distinction is strictly one of human philosophy. Concerning Kenosis, Charles Hodge, the leading American evangelical scholar of the last century, wrote:
"The theory in question is inconsistent with the clear doctrine both of revealed and natural religion concerning the nature of God. He is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and immutable. any theory, therefore, which assumes that God lays aside His omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, and becomes as feeble, ignorant, and circumscribed as an infant, contradicts the first principle of all religion..."17
It must be pointed out here that Hodge fully accepted the doctrine of the incarnation, that God came in the flesh, as an infant and a man. However, he saw it in the light of historic Christology, as discussed in section IV, that while all of that was true, Christ was not confined to that form of a servant, and was not limited by it, except that He willingly gave up the exercise of His Glory, and sometimes chose not to use His other powers, though He retained them fully.
2. Berkhof shines more light on the philosophical antecedents of Kenosis when he writes: "The theory is based on the pantheistic conception that God and man are not so absolutely different but that the one can be transformed into the other. The Hegelian idea of becoming is applied to God, and the absolute line of demarcation is obliterated."18 The theologians who concocted this heresy were German scholars steeped in the insidious philosophy of Hegel, the forerunner of both communism and fascism.
B. The vital doctrine of Immutability is completely destroyed by Kenotic teaching.
1. Biblically, there was no essential change of the nature of the Second Person of the Trinity in His Incarnation, because He did not lose the essential attributes of deity, He took on human flesh and a human nature. In His own essence, He did not change (Heb 13:8).
2. Beyond its effect on the immutability of the Son, it would destroy the integrity of the Triune God if He ceased to be fully and totally the Absolute God during His Incarnation, . "It means a virtual destruction of the Trinity, and therefore takes away our very God. The humanized Son, self-emptied of His divine attributes, could no longer be a divine subsistence in the Trinitarian life."19
C. If the God-Man who died on the cross was not both fully God and fully Man, then the integrity of the atonement is destroyed.
The Blood that redeemed the Church was the "Blood of God." Acts 20:28 If He was any less than God, then His blood sacrifice was not infinitely powerful and able to redeem all who believe in every age.
There are three Biblical concepts which are at the heart of this method: (A) Understanding the biblical doctrine of the two natures of Christ. (B) Understanding His role as our Kinsman-Redeemer and substitute, and (C) Understanding and admitting the existence of the Biblical concept of "mystery"--the fact that there are some things which must be just believed, because there is no way to understand them.
A. Understanding the biblical doctrine of the two natures of Christ.
The Trinitarian Controversy (A.D. 320-381) led directly into a great controversy over the Nature of Christ's Person. Understanding the doctrinal dimensions of this fight, and understanding the conclusions reached by the church are vital to understanding how to combat the cults in this area, since the cults of today are merely the heresies of yesterday refried. During this period of Church History, there were many evil things done in the name of one doctrine or another, yet miraculously, truth triumphed.
1. As the early church wrestled with understanding the Biblical teaching about Christ, there were three views that became most prominent. I will try to illustrate these views by assigning different ways of writing the term , "God-Man" to each view.
a. The Monophysites taught that Christ was the God-man, that is, He was not fully God and Fully man, but a third entity which was a fusion of the two natures (The Kenotic teaching is closest to this among the early heresies.) This heresy was basically a leftover of the Origenistic tendencies of Arianism, and grew strongest in the areas that had been strongest for the Arian view. The battle cry of this party was that Mary was the Theotokos, or Mother of God. The Monophysites carried this erroneous teaching (which survived, though without the Christological conclusions attached) to extremes, and made of Christ a new category of being, with one nature, will, and personality, each a fusion of God and Man.20
b. The Nestorians taught that Christ was the God, Man with two natures so separate as to be a split personality. This teaching developed because of the objections of the church and theological school of Antioch to the growing cult of Mary among monophysite believers.21
c. The orthodox view, which was approved by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and which has been accepted and proven to be fully Biblical by evangelical Christians since the Reformation, was that Christ was the God-Man, fully God and fully Man, one person with two unmixed natures.22
2. The important key concept in the orthodox doctrine is whatever Christ did, He did as a whole person. For instance, when His human body was beaten, tortured, and died, He suffered as a whole person, so that though God cannot be killed, it can be said that God Died for Our Sins.23
3. Because of the Truth of the two natures, we can Biblically say:24
a. Christ is infinite OR Christ is finite
b. He existed from all eternity OR He was born in Bethlehem
c. He was omniscient OR He was limited in knowledge
d. He is David's Lord YET David's son
e. He is the Ancient of Days YET He was born as an infant
f. He is God over all YET He is the son of Mary
g. He upholds all things YET He is weary with His journey
h. Without Him was nothing made that was made YET He can do nothing without the Father
i. His natural form is the form of God YET He takes on Him the form of a servant
j. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever, YET He increases in stature
k. He Knows the Father perfectly YET He increases in wisdom
l. In His own name, he gives a new and more perfect law and proclaims Himself Lord of the Sabbath
and greater than the temple, YET He is born under the law and is subject to the law
m. He is the Prince of Peace YET His souls is troubled
n. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, YET He goes to death at the order of a Roman governor
o. He is with us always unto the end of the world, YET The disciples saw Him being received into heaven out of their sight.
B. Understanding His role as our Kinsman-Redeemer and substitute.
Why was is necessary for the Redeemer to be the God-Man? Why is the doctrine of the two natures of Christ so important? The answers lie in God's law of the goel, or Kinsman-Redeemer, (Lev 25) illustrated beautifully by the historical story of Ruth. Scofield summarizes the principle concisely in his note on Is 59:20.25
5. Therefore, what we see as Christ's humiliation was done as our goel, our redeemer, our substitute. When He was living, acting, speaking, suffering, denying full knowledge of events, claiming total dependence on the Spirit, etc. as a man, he was doing these things out of His human nature, and in our place. Yet, because He was also God, He could pay the whole price--he lived, acted, spoke, and suffered as no other man ever had or ever could.
C. Understanding and admitting the existence of the Biblical concept of "mystery."
There are some things which must be just believed, because there is no way to understand them.
D. The three core concepts related above should help us understand how Christ lived His life on earth.
He lived in appearance as a man (Isaiah 53:3, Phil. 2:8), and submitted His will to the Father, and lived His life as a man anointed by the Spirit (Luke 4:16-21). Yet, He retained all His powers, and demonstrated His abilities often as a vindication of His messiahship and proof of His authority (Mk 2:1-12). In the mysterious verse John 5:17, ". . . My Father has been working until now, and I have been working," we are given a clue that He did many of His works "in His own right," though they were always in accordance with the will of the Father. On one occasion, He even lifted the veil of His flesh, took off His servant nature, so His three closest disciples could see Him as He really was (Mat 17:2). On another occasion, He "lifted the hem of His veil a bit"--when they came to arrest Him, He said "I AM," and they all fell down (John 18:4-6).
If we were to make an illustration of Jesus as if He were a policeman going under cover in a bad neighborhood, the Kenosis doctrine has the policeman leaving his weapons at home, along with his badge and other symbols of authority. He can call on headquarters for help, but he himself is helpless and defenseless. The orthodox teaching has the policeman himself as a "lethal weapon", he is a martial arts expert who can kill with a blow--he is skilled on the level that he can reach within a man's chest and pull out his still-beating heart--he can defeat multiple opponents. He can leave His I.D. , badge, uniform, etc., behind just like cop number one, but he cannot cease to be the walking weapon that he is. He looks normal, he appears as helpless as the first policeman, but he has the ability within himself to defend himself. He might choose to call for help; he might even choose to allow himself to be shackled, hurt or killed for the good of the mission--but he has the ability within himself to defeat his enemies. Raise that illustration, and the powers of the second policeman to infinity, and the illustration shows the difference in the two doctrines.
One of the beauties and glorious mysteries of the cross is that He who hung there was at that moment sustaining the universe--the very breath of the Roman soldiers was in His grip. He could have destroyed the Roman empire with a wink, with a thought, but He voluntarily restrained His great power, submitted to the plan He and the Father had agreed to before the world was made, and laid down His life. The entire Trinity was involved here--The Father pouring out His wrath , the Son Propitiating the wrath (Rom 1:18, 3:25-2, 5:8-11), and the Spirit involved in a way the Bible does not specify (Heb 9:14). This is a great mystery, but it cannot be solved by reducing the Son to something not quite God.
E. It is from applying the core concepts above that we can construct meaningful and orthodox answers to the questions of those who refuse to believe in the God of the Bible.
The answer is not to deviate from Truth ourselves through less-than-precise theology--it is to present the whole Truth unvarnished and uncut.
J.I. Packer, the dean of living evangelical theologians, completely rejects the doctrine of Kenosis, as illustrated in his book Knowing God. He says plainly, "The Kenosis theory will not stand."26 I encourage the reader, to see what this Christian leader says about the subject. I hope that my study will be of help, and if you have been infected with this false doctrine I pray you will seriously consider modifying your views in this vital area.
1 Walter Martin's last published writing was a refutation of apotheosis in the book The Agony of Deceit , (Moody Press, 1990). Included in that same book is an article by Dr. Rod Rosenbladt entitled Who Do TV Preachers Say That I Am?, which refutes, among other things, the teaching of Kenosis.