Kenosis, Kenoticists

The term kenosis comes from the Greek verb kenoo, used in Phil. 2:7 and translated “made Himself of no reputation” by the AV. The ARV translated it “emptied Himself,” which B. B. Warfield condemned as a mistranslation in this context.

The use of emptied reflects the views of a school of thought that developed in the mid-19th century. Their view of kenosis was that in the incarnation the divine Logos emptied Himself of His divine attributes. Kenoticists did not agree on the extent of the emptying. Some made it absolute and spoke of the incarnation as divine suicide. Others referred it solely to the Logos’s “relative” attributes, those not essential to His Godhead (such as omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence), leaving His “absolute” attributes out of the scope of the emptying. Another particularly objectionable notion of some leading kenoticists was the idea that the Logos actually laid aside His Godhood and became a human soul. In their opinion He did not take a true human soul into union with Himself but actually became a true human soul. The supposed Scripture basis for this doctrine is principally Phil. 2:6–8, though 2 Cor. 8:9 and John 17:5 are also pressed into service.

These scriptures do not teach what the kenoticists claim. Philippians 2:6–8 shows how Christ “emptied himself.” It was not by losing or getting rid of anything but by taking something. As an act of love, He did not hold on to the expression of His divine and sovereign equality with the Father but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant and becoming obedient, even unto the death of the cross. As Hebrews 5:8 puts it: “Though He were a Son, yet learned he obedience.” What He laid aside was the assertion of His equality, submitting Himself to the obedience of a servant as our Mediator. Thus, He could say “My Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). The “emptying” of Phil. 2:7, then, does not refer to the essential divine nature of the Logos, but to the assertion of divine prerogatives belonging properly to Him. The evidence of Scripture that the Lord Jesus Christ retained His divine nature and attributes after the incarnation is too strong to be shaken by kenotic views (see Matt. 1:23; 11:27; Mark 1:1; John 1:1, 14; 3:13; 14:9; Rom. 1:4; 9:5). Hebrews 13:8 emphasizes the immutability of Christ; the kenotic theory, in effect, denies the whole doctrine of divine immutability (see Mai. 3:6; James 1:17).

After a brief spell of popularity, even among some Reformed theologians, kenoticism lost most of its support.

Cairns, A. (2002). In Dictionary of Theological Terms. Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International.

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