He Emptied Himself

One of the Christological heresies that plagued the church during the mid-19th century, which is still believed by some modern evangelical churches and false teachers today (i.e. Kenneth Copeland, Bill Johnson) is Kenosis theory. The teaching that the Son of God in order to be fully human divested Himself not only of the His role as the second person of the Trinity but also of His essential attributes, particularly omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience, which are for the proponents of this theory are not essential but only relative (only love is essential). To put it simply, the Logos was reduced to a mere human form.

Lesson: The mysterious and redemptive incarnation of the Son of God is not by losing His deity but by taking unto Himself our humanity as He voluntarily submitted to the Father’s will and depended on the Spirit’s power.

The eternal relationship between the Father and Son is such that the Son never acts independently. He always does His Father’s will. This is the normal way in which they relate to each other. This is the way they have always been in heaven and this is the way it was when the Son was on earth. The God-man did not act independently. He did not do all that He could have done, unless the Father wanted Him to. In the same way, the God-man did not know information independently. He did not know all the information that He could have known if He had wanted to. He consciously chose to only know whatever the Father wanted Him to know.

J.I. Packer, Knowing God

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. – 2 Cor 8:9

who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. -Philippians 2:6-7

“the glory I had with you before the world began,” as Christ put it in His great high-priestly prayer (Jn 17:5).

But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32)

Kenosis theory or Kenotic theology comes from the Greek word “ἐκένωσεν” (ekenosen) aorist active indicative 3rd person singular form of the verb “κενόω” (kenόo). According to J.I. Packer, this term refers to the doctrine of Christ’s self-emptying in His incarnation. Although B.B. Warfield called this a mistranslation, the idea behind this theory is the following: (1) To be fully human, the Son had to give up some of His divine qualities. (2) Only then could He be limited in space, time, knowledge, and consciousness. (3) Only then could He truly share the human experience.

While others called it “divestment of divine attributes”, incarnation by divine suicide” and “depotentiated Logos,” it found its inception in the Lutheran Formula of Concord (Epitome, 8.16) when it says, “According to the personal union he always possessed this majesty, and yet dispensed with it in the state of humiliation.”

Berkhof, listing three forms of this theory defined its major form as systematized by Gottfried Thomasius (1802–1875) who distinguishes between the absolute and essential attributes of God such as absolute power, holiness, truth, and love, and His relative attributes, which are not essential to the Godhead, such as omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience; and maintains that the Logos while retaining His divine self-consciousness, laid the latter aside, in order to take unto Himself veritable human nature.” [L. Berkhof, 359]

J.I. Packer argued that this theory raises problematic issues:

  1. How can we say that the man Christ Jesus was fully God if He lacked some of the qualities of deity?
  2. How can we say that He perfectly revealed the Father, if some of the Father’s powers and attributes were not in Him?
  3. The Kenosis theory assumes that Jesus could not be fully and truly man on earth if He were fully God. If this is really the case, then what about now, and what about for all eternity? Is Jesus—the man in the glory—not a true man now or has He lost some of His divine powers for all eternity?
  4. Either we accept the claims of Jesus and credit His teachings with full divine authority, including what He said about the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament, Or we can reject the claims of Jesus and discredit all His teaching entirely.

Every now and then He used divine knowledge and power. But for the most part, He was content without divine knowledge and power. It is not a case of deity reduced but a case of deity restrained.

J.I. Packer

The four passages cited above are the passages used to support this theory but due to our limited space let us see if the supreme example of Christ’s humility in Philippians 2:6-7 supports this theory.

ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ (in the form of God) ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν (an object of eager desire) ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ (to be equal of God), ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν (made without reputation/emptied) μορφὴν δούλου λαβών (by taking the form of a servant), ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος· καὶ σχήματι (fashion) εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος.

Translation: “…who though He existed in the form of God did not think of equality with God as something to be prized but he made Himself without reputation by taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of man, and was found in the fashion of man.”


  • The word morphe (μορφῇ) refers to outward appearance and inward substance while schema/fashion (σχήματι) refers to outward form (compare similar usages in Phil. 3:21, 2 Cor. 3:18, & Rom. 12:2). Since the form of God is the very substance of Christ’s deity along with His other “Omni” attributes mentioned above, He cannot simply lay them aside. “Though µoφή is not the same as φύσς, or oὐσία, yet the possession of the µoφή involves participation in the oὐσία also: for µoφή implies not the external accidents but the essential attributes (Peter Thomas O’brien, IV.3.d.2)
  • ἁρπαγμὸν (harpagmon) It only occurs here in the New Testament. This is derived from the verb ἁρπάζω (harpazo) which means to snatch or to seize. means a thing to be grasped, as an object of eager desire, or something to be utilized or asserted. This refers to Jesus’ equality with God, where ‘He did not treat His equality with God as a prize, a treasure to be greedily clutched’; i.e., he already possessed divine equality and resolved not to cling to it. (J. B. Lightfoot)
  • The emptying (ἐκένωσεν) does not refer to “the form of God” but to “equality with God.” Hence, His deity was not laid aside but His functional equality by taking a subordinate role in accomplishing His work of redemption.
  • The emptying (ἐκένωσεν) or “he made himself of no reputation” is by taking (λαβών – labown) a form of a servant. The means of making himself of no reputation is not by reducing Himself to a mere human or laying aside His deity but by adding a human form (nature) to Himself.
  • He did not empty Himself of the Godhead, which is an impossibility, but of the manifestation of His divine glory.
  • He did not merely seem to look like a bond-servant but He became literally a slave (μορφὴν δούλου). We see this in 2 Corinthians 8:9 that for our sake He became poor.
  • He laid aside the divine glory and dignity which is evident in His request to the Father to glorify Himself (John 17:5). He did not assert His divine prerogative.
  • Christ could have not emptied Himself of some divine attributes “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily (Col 2:9).”
  • Millard Erickson called the Biblical Kenosis, “voluntary self-chosen and circumstance-induced limitations” on the exercise of His power and capacities (page 752). This explains all the texts that may seem to deny His deity or limit His knowledge (Mark 13:32, 5:30, 6:38).
  • From the portion of Paul’s letter to the Philippians above, we see Christ exalted state from eternity, His humiliation in the incarnation, and the glorious exaltation that commenced in His resurrection, but as R.C. Sproul remarks His “humiliation” is not absolute. This means that when we read the gospels, we’ll see some bursting of His deity veiled by His humanity. This testifies to the reality that the finite cannot fully contain the infinite.

“…Christ had voluntarily from all eternity taken on the form of a servant and in His incarnation laid aside or concealed the divine glory of his divinity and never used it during his humiliation to defeat his enemies or please Himself. He fought and won the battle with self-denying sacrificial love, culminating in death on the cross.”

H. Bavinck, 453

The incarnation is not a subtraction of deity but an addition of human nature. We must affirm the retention of the deity of the Son of God. As the Incarnate Son of God, He is the God-man. Without this, we will lose our hope in the efficiency of His once and for all sacrifice on the cross fully meeting the demands of God’s justice and enduring the fierce wrath of God. If Christ is not truly and fully God, the atonement will not have its infinite value, hence insufficient to save you and me.

From the above observation, we can really let go of the kenosis theory. B.B. Warfield asserted, “The only true kenosis is the kenosis of those who proposed the theory. They emptied their brains of common sense.” (paraphrased)

“The glory of the Incarnation is that it presents to our adoring gaze, not a humanized God or a deified man, but a true God-man—one who is all that God is and at the same time all that man is: on whose almighty arm we can rest, and to whose human sympathy we can appeal. We cannot afford to lose either the God in the man or the man in the God; our hearts cry out for the complete God-man whom the Scriptures offer us.”

Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings, 1:166

The incarnation shows God’s infinite and unimaginable love and grace. He did not let His people perish on their sins but suffered in this fallen world without becoming a sinner Himself in order to save them from the wrath of God.

Indeed, our life is not enough to thank and praise Him because from heaven He came and sought His bride, the church, and His redeemed people.

Questions for meditation:

  • Why is it important to understand the biblical teaching on “kenosis theory”?
  • What is/are its implication/s for your faith in Christ?

Note: This is from our Youth Bible Study. Citations are from Packer, J. I. (1993). Knowing God. Intervarsity Press. pages 59-63

  • Henry Brash Bonsall. (1967). The person of Christ. London, Christian Literature Crusade, , I.E.
  • Erickson, M. J. (2007). Christian theology. Baker Book House.‌
  • Beeke, J., & Smalley, P. M. (2020). Reformed Systematic Theology : Volume 2: Man and Christ. Crossway.
  • Bavinck, H., & Bolt, J. (2011). Reformed dogmatics. Baker Academic.
  • L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, (biblicaltraining.org)
  • Peter Thomas O’brien. (2014). The Epistle to the Philippians : a commentary on the Greek text. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Calibre – Epub.

Published by Jeff Chavez

Sinner saved by grace

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