Kenotic theology (kenosis) and Jesus Christ


  • Question 161, from Patricia

    What are the things that those who believe in Kenosis actually believe in? Do they believe that Jesus had a “veil” that concealed his divine powers while his incarnation on earth or do they believe that he actually “emptied himself” of all divine powers?

    ‘Kenosis’ is a term based on the Greek word ‘keno-oo’ used in Philippians chapter 2, verse 7, to describe Jesus Christ. Often translated as ‘Jesus humbled himself’ it literally means ‘to empty’ and has been interpreted as implying a shedding of divine powers by the pre-existent Jesus during the incarnation.

    As a term, ‘kenosis’ came to prominence in Lutheran theology. Luther commented that the Christian revelation of God is found in the man, Jesus, which includes the death and resurrection of Jesus: often referred to as the ‘theology of the cross’. God is therefore seen in the crucified man, and God experiences death and resurrection.

    This theme has been explored more fully since Luther’s time, and often feature theories of ‘kenosis’ to explain how God could potentially take on limitations.

    Explaining human and divine natures
    Theologians differ over the scale of how much divine power was retained by the incarnate Christ, and this has been a discussion in Christian theology since earliest times. The ‘Chalcedonian definition’ that dates from the Council of Chalcedon in 451 is often regarded as the final theological statement of the ‘early church’ and is the culmination of fierce debates about Christ’s divinity and humanity.

    The creed of Chalcedon affirmed the ‘two natures’ Christology, saying that Jesus Christ was both fully God and fully human. This meant that gospel stories about miracles could be ascribed to his divine nature, while various weaknesses recorded in the gospels (the need for sleep, hunger, thirst, needing to ask questions) were ascribed to Christ’s human nature. This has become the basis for almost all strands of Christian theology active today, but has weaknesses, the most obvious one being ‘How can one being have two natures?’

    ‘Kenotic’ theology offers an alternative explanation to the two-natures Christology, as Christ takes on a human nature at the expense of the divine nature during the incarnation. The human Christ could even be thought of as lacking any divine powers because he had ‘emptied himself’ of them in the process of Incarnation.

    A controversial point of view
    This idea has attracted some criticism. Biblical scholar Gordon Fee says: “Historically, far too much has been made of the verb “emptied himself”, as though in becoming incarnate he [Jesus] literally “emptied himself” of something.” [1] Fee goes on to demonstrate a sound textual argument that Paul’s use of ‘kenosis’ is merely metaphorical and does not describe a change in the divine nature. The main theological revelation of this passage, according to Fee is the claim that Jesus Christ existed within the Godhead before the incarnation. The pre-existence of Christ is central to Paul’s metaphorical description of Christ ‘humbling himself’ as a ‘servant’.

    Despite these criticisms, however, ‘Kenosis’ remains a way of understanding the Incarnation that remains popular among theologians because it allows a genuine human Jesus to also be a genuine divine Christ. The Incarnation becomes an event where God is limited in time, and underlines the uniquely Christian assertion about God that ‘God was in Christ’.

    Notes
    [1] Gordon Fee, Philippians, IVP 1999, p. 94

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