Category Archives: Kenosis

The KENOSIS, Elmer Towns


The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is central to all Christian doctrine, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).” The earthly life, ministry, and passion of our Savior are predicated upon the fact that He was God in human flesh. The Scripture passage that has aroused most controversy concerning the Lord’s incarnation is Philippians 2:6,7. These verses comprise wht has been called the Kenosis passage.

  1. Christ Emptied Himself
  2. Definition. The term Kenosis is derived from a Greek word used in Philippians 2:7 that describes what happened when Christ became a man. The term is translated in the KJV “made Himself of no reputation.” It is translated “He emptied Himself” in the NASV. This one word has perhaps motivated more investigation than any other in the New Testament. For ages theologians have faced the dilemma of interpreting this one word, “kenosis.” They cannot deny that “Christ emptied Himself,” but “what was poured out?” Can Christ give away part of His deity and remain God? Can God be less than God? The solution to the Kenosis problem is found in a threefold explanation. “Christ emptied Himself” by: (1) veiling His glory, (2) accepting the limitations of human nature, (3) voluntarily giving up the independent use of His comparative attributes. John Walvoord comments on this aspect of Kenosis:

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 (Walvoord, Jesus Christ Our Lord).

When Jesus came to live among men over 1900 years ago, people did not recognize the One they met. Jesus is God – always was and always will be. Yet it was God in the form of man that was symbolically rejected by the Inn Keeper, and later to be rejected, hated, and even crucified. Yet He was no ordinary man. When Jesus became a man, He remained God. He was truly God during His earthly ministry. Hodge describes the unique person.

The whole immutable divine essence continued to subsist as the same eternal person. That divine person now embraced a perfect human nature, exalted by, yet dependent upon, the divine nature, to which it is united (Hodge, Archibald Alexander, Outlines of Theology).

A few conservative scholars hold a different interpretation of Philippians 2:7. Paul K Jewett cites BB Warfield in support of his position that, “An expression such as this must be understood as a figurative and dramatic way of expressing the marvelous condescension of our Lord (Jewett, Paul, Kenosis, Wycliffe Bible Dictionary).” To interpret he word Kenosis in a figurative way is not consistent with grammatical-historical hermeneutics, nor does it satisfy grammatical demands of the text. For Christ, who was God before time began, to take on the “form of a servant” was indeed a humiliating experience, but Philippians 2:7 is a bold doctrinal declaration in the midst of an otherwise instructional passage. The subject of the passage is a literal, historical event, the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

  1. False theories of the Kenosis. Among the false theories of the Kenosis which have been proposed are those of Gess, Beecher, Ebrard, Martensen, and Thomasius (Bruce, Alex B, The Humiliation of Christ). WF Gess and HW Beecher both argue that Jesus was not God during His life on earth. In explaining the Kenosis, they say Jesus gave up all His comparative attributes and moral attributes Berkhof, Louis, Systematic Theology) . If Jesus gave up His attributes, that would make Him less than God. Ebrard claims He gave up the right to be worshipped, by emptying Himself of the “Glows of the attributes.” Ebrard maintains that Christ still possessed divine attributes while on earth, but only in the “time-form appropriate to human existence (Bruce),” In other words, His attributes were hidden. A third argument by Hans L Martensen is that Jesus gave up the divine self-conscientiousness, meaning He had the attributes of God, but did not know it. “Martensen postulated the existence of a double life in the incarnate logos from two non-communicating life centers (Berkhof). If Jesus were God and did not know it, then we have an obligation to question the omniscience and truthfulness of God. Still others such as Thomasius will argue that Jesus only abandoned His absolute, or comparative, attributes of God while His essential attributes of holiness, love, truth, etc., were retained and revealed in His life on earth (Bruce). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia has been somewhat influenced by this view because it defines Kenosis as a term which “in recent years has acquired a still more technical sense, i.e. of the Son’s emptying Himself of certain attributes, especially of omniscience (Eason, Burton Scott, “Kenosis” ISBE).” A problem exists if we say that Jesus could have given up any attributes. If He had, He would have ceased to be God.

In refutation of these false theories, it must be notes that all of them contain common or similar errors. To rob God of any attributes would be to rob God of deity. It would mean that God is no longer immutable (unchanging), and therefore causes Him to be less than God (cf. Psalms  90:2). If one class of attributes is not essential to deity, then another class of attributes is not essential. What standard could be used to determine what attribute is essential? The occurrence of the word Kenosis has given theologians a problem, but at some point undiminished deity must touch limited humanity. God chose the word Kenosis to be the point in contact. We cannot change the word Kenosis, nor can we change the nature of God. In our human finite understanding we must struggle to see how the two fit together. And as they interface, we see that God has chosen the best form to help us understand a difficult topic. And out of this difficulty we have a better view of Christ than could otherwise be obtained.

One of the chief purposes of the Gospel of John is to illustrate the Deity of Christ. “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name (John 20:31).” John’s use of the term “Son of God” refers to deity. Jesus was the only begotten Son of God, which means He possessed that nature and character of His Father while on earth. John begins his Gospel by arguing, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1).” Describing Jesus when He became a man, John wrote, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth (John 1:4).” “God in becoming man did not diminish His deity, but added a human nature to the divine nature (Walvoord).” Therefore the Kenosis was self-emptying, not a self extinction on the art of Christ. In support of the fact that Christ continued to be God during His life on earth, Buswell notes,

If Paul had thought that Jesus in His self emptying had deprived Himself of any of the essential divine attributes, he could never have spoken of him in the exalted terms he constantly used. See for example his statement (Col. 2:9) that “in Him dwells all the fullness of deity in bodily form.” Paul’s thought is certainly not that he second person of the Trinity deprived Himself of certain characteristics (Buswell, James Oliver, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion).”

What is self-emptying?

  1. Veiling His Glory. JB Lightfoot in his Commentary on Philippians defined Kenosis, “stripped Himself of the insignia of majesty (Lightfoot, JB, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians).” Wisely, Jesus hid His glory when He became a man. No one could see God, yet man must know what God is like. “No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared Him (John 1:18).” When Old Testament saw a Christophany, they were often fearful for their lives. They knew that sinful man could not look upon God and live. The glory of God was also the judgment of God; the unprotected person who saw it died. When Moses spent 40 days alone with God on Mt Sinai, it was necessary to cover his face when he came down because it reflected the glory of God. The people could not look on him.

When John was on the Isle of Patmos, he too had a vision of Christ. When John saw Jesus in the full glory that was His from the beginning, John wrote, “And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead (Rev. 1:17).” When Paul had a similar vision of Christ, he was “blinded with light from heaven (Acts 9:3).” Later he wrote of being “caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for man to utter (2 Cor. 12:4).” When Isaiah saw the Lord in the Temple, he cried out, “woe is me (Is. 6:1-8).”

The Apostle Paul clearly declares that both the glory and the nature of God dwelled in the body of Jesus Christ. “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Leon Morris calls this verse “the most concise statement of the incarnation (Morris, The Gospel According to John).”

The verb dwelt is the Greek word ekenosin (rooted in kenoo) which literally means “to Tabernacle” to “pitch one’s tent.” It is derived from the same root as the noun skene which means tent or tabernacle (Marvin Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament). Jesus was God as He tabernacle among men in a body of human flesh. Just as God lived among men in the Tabernacle in the wilderness, now God has a different tent. God dwells among men in the human tent, the body that was born in Bethlehem. Just as the Tabernacle was the place of redemption in the Old Testament, so the human tent/body of Jesus Christ will be the place of redemption in the new. Vincent notes,

The Tabernacle was the dwelling place of Jehovah; the meeting place of God and Israel. So the Word came to men in the person of Jesus. As Jehovah adopted for His habitation a dwelling like that of the people in the wilderness, so the Word assumed a community of nature with mankind, an embodiment like that of humanity at large, and became flesh (Vincent, Word Studies).

RV Tasker observes:

The Greek word ekenosen implies “dwelt in a tent” or “tabernacle.” Its use here might be to emphasize that the incarnate life of the Word was a temporary sojourning. More probably, it meant that the divine presence, which it was believed was especially “located” in the tabernacle and later in the temple, now came to dwell in the man Jesus (Tasker, The Gospel According to John, Tyndale Commentaries).

On the mount of transfiguration, Christ briefly allowed the fullness of His glory to be witnessed by Peter, James, and John. That brief manifestation stands in sharp contrast against the manner in which Jesus was viewed daily by those around Him. The transfiguration illustrates that Jesus possessed glory, that which was not revealed during His life on earth.

If Jesus had not veiled His pre-incarnate glory He could not have accomplished what He came to do. Christ had to hide His glory temporarily as He sought to redeem the souls of men. Hodge accurately states,

If Christ is not in the same person both God and man, He either could not die, or His death could not avail. If He be not man, His whole history is a myth, if He be not God, to worship Him is idolatry, yet not to worship Him is to disobey the Father, John 5:23.

After the work of atonement was done, Jesus could pray, “And now o Father, glorify Thou Me with Thine own self, with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was (Jn. 17:5).”

  1. Submitting to the limitations of humanity.

As a result of the incarnation, Jesus became the God-man. He was at all times both God and man as He lived on earth. When Jesus became flesh, He voluntarily subjected Himself to human limitations. Before His birth, heaven was His throne and He traveled the universe at will. Now in the flesh, Jesus was limited to the distance that a man could walk on the path of Galilee. The Son of God who created water, voluntarily lived in a body that got thirsty.

Strong has described five stages in which Christ “emptied Himself” or “made Himself of no reputation.” The Kenosis is the ultimate act of emptying oneself (Strong, Augustus Hopkins, Systematic Theology). Jesus was born into this world as other humans. His was a normal, physical birth (Lk. 2:1-20), even though His conception was supernatural. As a child, He developed as every human must. Jesus grew in mental, physical, spiritual and social areas of life (Lk. 2:52). He had the essential elements of human nature. He was body (Heb. 10:5), soul (Jn. 12:27), and spirit ((Mk. 2:8). Jesus became hungry when He did not eat (Mt. 4:2). He became tired and asked the woman at the well for water to drink (Jn. 4:6). Throughout His life on earth, Jesus was just as human as any of us, subject to experiencing the same emotions sorrows, pains and hurts any man experiences. GC Berkouwer correctly observed,

Scripture speaks of Jesus Christ as truly God and truly man. He is one of us, like us in all things, our brother, sharing our flesh and our blood… He entered the reality of our world and life, having assumed the form of a servant (Berkouwer, G Cornelius, The Person of Christ).

The willingness of Jesus to limit Himself to becoming a man gives us confidence that He understands the events of our life. “For we have not an High Priest who cannot be touched with the feelings of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15). Because He has experientially known the frustrations of humanity, we have a “God of all comfort (2 Cor. 1:3)” upon whom we can depend.

  1. He surrendered the independent use of His comparative attributes.

The third aspect of His self-emptying took place by the voluntary non-use of His comparative attributes.




Omnipotence (Jn. 11:41-42)

Perhaps the best expression of omnipotence is the performing of miracles by Christ. Even though Jesus was known as a miracle worker, He performed those miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 12:28). He voluntarily gave up the independent exercise of His omnipotence and He ministered in the power of the Holy Spirit or the Father (Lk. 4:1, 14, 18). On various occasions He made it clearly known that He was doing the work of His Father. “Then answered Jesus, and said to them, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He seeth the Father do; for whatsoever things he doeth, these things also the Son likewise (Jn. 5:19).”

During His earthly life and ministry, Jesus did not apparently exercise the independent use of His comparative attributes. The nature of His humanity and the purpose of His mission demanded that He live and minister in the power of the Father and the Holy Spirit. He was omniscient, but did not know the time of the second coming (Mt. 24:36). He was omnipresent, but when He became flesh, He limited Himself to being in one place at one time. He was omnipotent, yet He prayed to God to perform the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Jesus had not lost these attributes of God but rather, in the process of emptying Himself, He voluntarily engaged in the non-use of His comparative attributes. Theissen supports this view with the following statement,

Thus though He did not surrender His divine attributes, He willingly submitted to not exercise certain attributes of deity so that He could identify with man .