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The Humiliation of the Son of God

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One of the important considerations in the theological statement of the incarnation is the definition of what was involved in the condescension and humiliation of Christ in becoming man. How could the eternal God take upon Himself human limitations while retaining His eternal deity? Orthodox theologians have answered the question by declaring that God in becoming man did not diminish His deity, but added a human nature to the divine nature. How this actually affected the divine nature is treated in the classic passage of Philippians 2:5-11. Some have interpreted this statement as meaning that Christ in some sense gave up part of His deity in order to become man. As such a conclusion would seriously affect the orthodox doctrine of the deity of Christ, theologians have examined this passage minutely to find an answer to the problem of what Christ actually did in becoming man.

In general, the act of the Son of God in the incarnation is described first by the word condescension in that He, the eternal God, condescended to be man. As a man He submitted to the death on the cross which is described by the term humiliation. After His passion, Christ rose from the dead and later ascended into heaven where He was exalted to the right hand of God the Father. The theological question is raised, therefore, as to whether the process of condescension, humiliation, and exaltation involved any change in the divine nature of Christ.

The Exegesis of Philippians 2:5-11

The Philippian passage concerning the self-emptying or kenosis of the Son of God was introduced in support of a practical exhortation to have the mind or attitude of Christ. In support of this, the action of Christ in proceeding from glory to become man and suffer on the cross was cited as an illustration. In the accompanying explanation, the apostle gave one of the most concise theological statements of the incarnation to be found anywhere in the Scriptures. Christ is described first of all as “existing in the form of God.” The word for existing is not the usual Greek verb ὠν (to be), but ὑπάρχων which is found in a form used for both the present and the imperfect participle and carries the meaning of continued existence. The thought is that Christ always has been in the form of God with the implication that He still is. If the Greek form is taken as the present tense instead of the imperfect, the word would mean that Christ existed as God in the past, that is, before the incarnation, and is still existing in the form of God. This would be asserting that the deity of Christ continues unchanged by the act of the incarnation. If taken as a simple imperfect, it would refer to His state before the incarnation, without explicitly affirming continuity of the form of God though the implication of continuity would remain.

As stated by the apostle, Christ “existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross” (ASV). The attitude of Christ which believers are exhorted to emulate is that He did not grasp at being on an equality with God as if it had to be retained by effort. Though having existed in the form of God from all eternity, He was willing to empty Himself, taking the form of a servant, and ultimately He became obedient unto death.

The act of the incarnation is described by the strong word ἐκένωσεν (English, kenosis) meaning to empty (cf. four other instances where used in the New Testament—Rom 4:14; 1 Cor 1:17; 9:15 ; 2 Cor 9:3). Warfield considers the translation “emptied himself” (ASV) as an error, apparently preferring the Authorized Version rendering, “made himself of no reputation,” i.e., emptied Himself of the manifestations of deity.1 The crux of the exposition of this important passage hangs on the definition of the act of kenosis. Orthodox theologians have pointed out that the meaning of this word must be interpreted by the context itself. The passage does not state that Christ ceased to exist in the form of God, but rather that He added the form of a servant. The word μορφῇ, translated form, speaks of the outer appearance or manifestation. As it relates to the eternal deity of Christ, it refers to the fact that Christ in eternity past in outer appearance manifested His divine attributes. It was not mere form or appearance, but that which corresponded to what He was eternally. In becoming man He took upon Himself the form of a servant, that is, the outward appearance of a servant and the human nature which corresponds to it. This is further defined as manifesting the likeness (ὁμοιώματι) of man in that He looked and acted like a man. The passage further declares that He was “found in fashion as a man,” the word fashion (σχήματι) indicating the more transient manifestations of humanity such as weariness, thirst, and other human limitations. Taking the whole passage together, there is no declaration here that there was any loss of deity, but rather a limitation of its manifestation. It is certainly clear from other declarations of Paul that he recognized that Jesus Christ in the flesh was all that God is even though He appeared to be a man.

The kenosis passage of Philippians, chapter two , though it was probably never intended to be a complete statement of the incarnation, has been claimed as a Scriptural basis for the idea that in the incarnation Christ in some sense emptied Himself of certain divine attributes, especially the attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. It is claimed that this passage justifies the idea that a true incarnation involves surrender of certain qualities of deity and that therefore Christ was something less than God while in the sphere of condescension and humiliation on earth.

A.B. Bruce in his work, The Humiliation of Christ, classifies the kenotic series as falling into four types, all of which are denied by orthodox theologians as constituting a rejection of the deity of Christ. Bruce writes: “Fortunately, however, we are not required by the history of opinion to be mathematically complete in our exposition, but may content ourselves with giving some account of four distinct kenotic types, which may for the present be intelligibly, if not felicitously, discriminated as, (1) the absolute dualistic type, (2) the absolute metamorphic, (3) the absolute semi-metamorphic, and (4) the real but relative. Of the first, Thomasius may conveniently be taken as the representative; of the second, Gess; of the third, Ebrard; and of the fourth, Martensen.”2

The first of these described as the absolute dualistic type as set forth. by Thomasius and others attempts to distinguish between the ethical or immanent attributes of God and the relative or physical.3 According to this view, the relative and physical attributes, including omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence, were surrendered by Christ in becoming man. In opposition to this view, orthodox theologians have pointed out that God cannot change His nature by act of His will any more than any other being. Attributes inherent in a personal essence cannot be dismissed. This is contained in the divine attribute of immutability which is expressly affirmed of Christ (Heb 13:8). Further, though there are problems stemming from certain Scriptural statements concerning the human nature of Christ, there is considerable evidence that Christ retained omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence even while on earth. Further, a loss in attributes would mean in effect that Christ was not God at all which is contradicted by innumerable Scriptures and specifically by the Gospel of John.

Bruce also points out a second view4 known as the absolute metamorphic type supported by Gess which goes even further and asserts that divine attributes were given up in the incarnation and Christ was entirely human though Gess asserts according to Bruce that Christ was not “simply an ordinary man,” having a “superadamitic element.”5 The divine consciousness in Christ ceased entirely though it was later gradually reassumed, beginning with His experience in the temple at the age of twelve. This point of view is so extreme that it hardly requires refutation by those who accept the Biblical testimony.

The third view, described by Bruce as the “absolute semi-metamorphic type” as espoused by Ebrard is another attempt at compromising the deity of Christ.6 It held that the divine properties were disguised and appeared as a mode of human existence. The mode of existence of Christ was changed from that of the form of God to the form of a man, from the eternal manner of being to a temporal manner of being. The difficulty with this view is that while it accommodates itself to the human appearance of Christ it in effect denies that He was actually God simultaneously with His human experience. It is not the picture of Christ which is afforded in the entire New Testament.

The fourth view known as the “real but relative”7 is closer to the truth in that it affirms that Christ was God, but limits His experience to that of the human consciousness and remolds the divine attributes into properties of the human nature. Christ is limited in His experience of knowledge even though as God He was omniscient and limited in His experience of power. This, however, is contradicted by the fact that though Christ in His human nature was limited His divine consciousness is still omniscient and His divine will still omnipotent. The difficulties with all these views which fall short of ascribing to Christ a full deity is that they read into the passage in Philippians 2 more than it actually says and contradict many other Scriptures which fully assert the deity of Christ during the period He was on earth.

The explanations of the so-called kenotic theologians are therefore judged inadequate either as an explanation of the incarnation itself or the revelation contained in Philippians 2. Objections which arise to their theories are far more serious than the problem which the false theory of kenosis attempts to solve.

First, 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 the 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 that He possessed a true deity. As the attributes belong to the essence, it is impossible to subtract any attributes without changing the character of the essence of God. This is a far more serious problem than that occasioned by the humiliation of Christ.

Second, the attempt to distinguish between the importance of relative and absolute attributes is entirely unjustified as both are equally essential to deity. The absolute attributes imply the necessity of the relative, and, though there seems to be a justifiable theological distinction, it is not that one class of attributes is more essential to deity than the other.

Third, the false theory of kenosis is in direct conflict with Scriptures which affirm the omniscience of Christ (John 2:24; 16:30 ), assert His omnipresence (John 1:48) and demonstrate His omnipotence as revealed in His many miracles. The purpose of the Gospel of John was specifically to prove the deity of Christ during the period He was on earth and automatically excludes the idea that Christ was less than divine while in the sphere of humiliation.

The Proper Doctrine of Kenosis

If it is true that Christ did not give up any divine attribute or any essential quality of deity in becoming man, how can the act of emptying Himself be defined?

First, it may be stated that the humiliation of Christ consisted in the veiling of His preincarnate glory. It was necessary to give up the outer appearance of God in order to take upon Himself the form of man. In answer to the prayer of Christ to the Father (John 17:5) the manifestation of His glory was restored when His work on earth was finished. The glory was never surrendered in an absolute sense as is shown by the revelation of Himself as the glorified Lord on the Mount of Transfiguration. It may be implied that there was also a flash of glory when in the Garden of Gethsemane Christ said: “I am he” and those who beheld Him “went backward and fell to the ground” (John 18:6). From these instances it would appear that the glory of Christ, though necessarily veiled in order to permit Him to walk among men, was not surrendered. The situation was the same in the Old Testament when He appeared in the form of the Angel of Jehovah and in some instances His glorious appearance was hidden from earthly eyes in order for Him to appear to men and converse with them. After the ascension Christ is never seen except in His glorified state.

Second, the union of Christ to an unglorified humanity unquestionably involved divine condescension and was a necessary factor in His ultimate humiliation on the cross. The humiliation was not the initial step of incarnation, but was involved in the whole program of God leading to His shameful death. The humanity to which Christ was united was not a glorified humanity, but one subject to temptation, distress, weakness, pain, sorrow, and limitation. After His return to glory His humanity was glorified, but the original union with unglorified humanity is included in the kenosis.

Third, while it is not true that Christ in the incarnation surrendered the relative attributes of omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience, He did embark upon a program where it was necessary to submit to a voluntary nonuse of these attributes in order to obtain His objectives. Christ does not seem to have ever exercised His divine attributes on His own behalf though they had abundant display in His miracles. This is qualified to some extent by the fact that His omniscience is revealed in His prophetic ministry, but He did not use His divine knowledge to make His own path easier. He suffered all the inconveniences of His day even though in His divine omniscience He had full knowledge of every human device ever conceived for human comfort. In his human nature there was growth in knowledge, but this must not be construed as a contradiction of His divine omniscience. Limitations in knowledge as well as limitations in power are related to the human nature and not to the divine. His omnipotence was manifested in many ways and specifically in the many miracles which He did, in some cases by the power of the Holy Spirit and in others on the basis of His own word of authority. Here again He did not use His omnipotence to make His way easy and He knew the fatigue of labor and transportation by walking. Though in His divine nature He was omnipresent, He did not use this attribute to avoid the long journeys on foot nor is He ever seen in His ministry in more than one place at a time. In a word, He restricted the benefits of His attributes as they pertained to His walk on earth and voluntarily chose not to use His powers to lift Himself above ordinary human limitations.

Fourth, on two specific occasions Christ is revealed to have performed His miracles in the power of the Holy Spirit (Matt 12:28; Luke 4:14-18). In these instances Christ chose voluntarily to be dependent upon the power of the Father and the Holy Spirit to perform His miracles. In view of the fact that this is mentioned only twice and hundreds of miracles were performed, it would seem clear that Christ exercised His own power when He chose to do so as, for instance, when He commanded the waves to be still and caused Lazarus to come forth from the tomb at His command.

The act of kenosis as stated in Philippians 2 may therefore 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. The summary which is given by A. H. Strong sets forth the true doctrine in comparison to the false in these words: “Our doctrine of Christ’s humiliation will be better understood if we put it midway between two pairs of erroneous views, making it the third of five. The list would be as follows: (1) Gess: The Logos gave up all divine attributes; (2) Thomasius: The Logos gave up relative attributes only; (3) True View: The Logos gave up the independent exercise of divine attributes; (4) Old Orthodoxy: Christ gave up the use of divine attributes; (5) Anselm: Christ acted as if He did not possess divine attributes.”8


This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.


1 B. B. Warfield, Christology and Criticism, p. 375.

2 A. B. Bruce, The Humiliation of Christ, p. 179. For discussion of these four types of kenotic theology, cp. C. L. Feinberg, Bibliotheca Sacra, 92:368:415-17, October-December, 1935; L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, pp. 327-28.

3 Ibid., pp. 179-87.

4 Ibid., pp. 187-97.

5 Ibid., p. 193.

6 Ibid., pp. 197-206.

7 Ibid., pp. 206-12.

8 A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, p. 704.