What is Kenosis?

Question
What is Kenosis?
Answer
The name "Kenosis" is derived from the Greek word kenoo which means "to empty." The word kenoo is used in Philippians 2:5-8:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied [ekenosen, the aorist of kenoo] himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

The Kenosis theory promotes that Jesus Christ - God - gave up some of his attributes - omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence [see "What are the Attributes of God?" below] - when he became a man upon the earth. As the theory goes, Jesus voluntarily gave up these attributes so he could fully function as a man and finish the work of redemption.

However, if Jesus Christ gave up being omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, then in effect he was no longer God. Can God cease to exist? Can divinity simply be turned on and off like a light switch? God is immutable (Mal 3:6; Jas 1:17), meaning his nature cannot change. However, Kenosis offers us a changing god. The Kenosis theory destroys the Trinity, as if Jesus emptied himself of his divine attributes he could not longer be a divine subsistence in the Trinitarian life. Jesus Christ holds this world together (Col 1:7). If he turned off his divinity, the universe and everything in it would cease to exist.

Jesus Christ did not give up any attributes when he became a man. We see this fact vividly when Jesus states, "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?" (Matt 26:53). Did not Jesus heal the sick, cast our demons, and calm the sea? Weren't all these displays of his omnipotence? Jesus in his divine nature knows everything (Matt 16:21; Luke 11:17; John 4:29), is everywhere (Matt 18:20; 28:20; cf. Acts 18:10), and has all power (Matt 8:26-27; 28:18; John 11:38-44; Luke 7:14-15; cf. Rev 1:8), etc. Jesus Christ never ceased being fully God when upon earth! "For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily" (Col 2:9).

What Jesus did was to at times "conceal" (Greek, krypsis) some of his attributes. John Calvin says it rather well:

For we know that in Christ the two natures were united into one person in such a manner that each retained its own properties; and more especially the divine nature was in a state of repose, and did not at all exert itself, whenever it was necessary that the human nature should act separately, according to what was peculiar to itself, in discharging the office of mediator. There would be no impropriety, therefore in saying that Christ, who knew all things (John 21:17), was ignorant of something in respect of his perception as a man; for otherwise he could not have been liable to grief and anxiety, and could not have been like us (Hebrews 2:17).

While Jesus Christ was upon this earth, he continued to share fully in the one essence of God Almighty. While Jesus Christ continued to be fully God, he added to himself everything that is essential to humanity and walked the earth as the God-man (100% God and 100% man) in order to meet the most dire need of his people - their atonement (Rom 3:21-26).

So, in the hypostatic union there is a union of the two distinct natures in Christ: divinity + humanity. Each nature fully retains its own properties; they are not changed, or blended together. So, while we understand that God fully knows all things (Psa. 139; 1 Kings 8:39; 1 John 3:20) when we come to a passage such as Mark 13:32 (Matt 24:36) we can safely say: (1) in his humanity, Christ was limited in his knowledge as God the Father had not yet revealed this specific information to the human mind of his only begotten Son, (2) however, at one and the same time, in his divinity, Jesus Christ certainly knew the day and the hour of the final judgment. If not, then he was not God!

The Kenosis theory is heretical. If Jesus was not fully divine in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension then all are yet in their sins.

Despite all the heresies in the early church (among them, Adoptionism, Albigenses, Apollinarianism, Arianism, Docetism, Ebionism, Gnosticism, Kenosis, Marcionism, Modalism, Monarchianism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism, Patripassionism, Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Socinianism, Subordinationism, and Tritheism, etc.) the Word of God still abides (1 Pet 1:23). Amidst all these assaults against God and his church by numerous false religions, the church has grown stronger, not weaker. In many ways, the church should be thankful for the gift of opposition!

References:

Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Harmony of the Gospels, Vol. 3.

Related Topics:

What are the Attributes of God?
Could Jesus Sin?
Christological Heresies?
What is Adoptionism?
What is Albigenses?
What is Apollinarianism?
What is Arianism?
What is Docetism?
What is Ebionism?
What is Gnosticism?
What is Marcionism?
What is Modalism?
What is Monarchianism?
What is Monophysitism?
What is Nestorianism?
What is Patripassionism?
What is Pelagianism?
What is Semi-Pelagianism?
What is Socinianism?
What is Subordinationism?
What is Tritheism?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).