Kenotic Christology

Theological Terminology: Kenoticism

“Kenoticism” and “kenotic” are derived from the Greek word κένωσις, kénōsis, meaning an “emptying”, which itself is derived from κενός, kenós, meaning “empty”.

In theology, kenoticism refers to the condescension of God in an incarnational Christology. The kenotic view of Christology was raised in the early nineteenth century in Germany  (by Gottfried Thomasius), and then in England in the late nineteenth century (by Bishop Charles Gore). Part of the motivation behind kenotic Christology was a desire to explain why the Gospels portray Jesus as being ignorant of things (e.g. the day of his return).

Kenotic Christology is primarily based upon the Carmen Christi (Php. 2.5-11):

ος εν μορφη θεου υπαρχων ουχ αρπαγμον ηγησατο το ειναι ισα θεω, (v. 6)

αλλα εαυτον εκενωσεν μορφην  δουλου λαβων, εν ομοιωματι ανθρωπων γενομενος, και σχηματι ευρεθεις ως ανθρωπος (v. 7)

εταπεινωσεν εαυτον γενομενος υπηκοος μεχρι θανατου, θανατου  δε σταυρου (v. 8 )

The phrase αλλα εαυτον  εκενωσεν contains the verbal conjugation of κενόω, which is typically translated as either “but emptied himself” or “but made himself nothing”. Various interpretations of this “emptying” have been proposed, each of which claims that the surrounding context of the Carmen Christi supports the interpretation. Unfortunately, while v. 6 is critical to understanding what the kenosis is referring to, it is open to various interpretations which give varied meanings to the text (e.g. αρπαγμον can be translated in the sense of “did not consider it robbery to grasp at,” or in the sense of “did not consider it as a thing to cling to”).

Usually in kenotic Christologies, the phrase αλλα εαυτον εκενωσεν is taken to mean that some kind of divine attributes or prerogatives were voluntarily laid aside in the incarnation of God. Precisely what divine prerogatives, properties, or attributes that were laid aside is open to wildly differing interpretations. Some kenotic Christologies posit that the incommunicable attributes of God (e.g. omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence) were laid aside, while the communicable attributes (e.g. love and mercy) were retained.

Some would say, however, that this is an eisegetical reading of the text that is not stated or implied, as the kenosis is explicitly delineated by the preceding and following phrases. This is to say, the one who εν μορφη θεου υπαρχων ουχ αρπαγμον ηγησατο το ειναι ισα θεω (though in the form of God, did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped), emptied himself (εαυτον εκενωσεν) by μορφην  δουλου λαβων, εν ομοιωματι ανθρωπων γενομενος, και σχηματι ευρεθεις ως ανθρωπος (taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men).

The problem with all kenotic Christologies is that they raise questions to which there are no easy and sure answers: Can true deity be differentiated from full deity? Can we know what are essential divine attributes and what are not? Does becoming human necessitate that the Logos empty itself of any divine properties?

The declaration that the Creator entered into his own creation by becoming a man has naturally faced many problems, both philosophically and theologically, leading to all sorts of solutions. The Council of Chalcedon held in AD 451 was an attempt to resolve various  misunderstandings of how the divine and human natures relate to one another in the person of Christ. Unfortunately, in stating that there is neither separation nor confusion between the human and divine natures, the Chalcedonian definition does not exactly quell the confusion that can arise in the mind when trying to understand the metaphysics behind the Christian doctrine of the incarnation.


Christology is an integral part of Christian doctrine. Not only that, Christology must also be a central component to Christian living.

The kenosis not only establishes the divinity and humanity of Christ but it also guides a believer in living for and like Christ.

Semantic Range of Kenosis

The term kenosis comes from the Greek verb keno, w (kenoō), which, at its most basic level, carries the idea of “to empty.”1 Other expressions within its range of meaning are: “to divest one’s self of one’s prerogatives,” “abase one’s self,” “to deprive a thing of its proper functions,” “to show to be without foundation,” “falsify.”2 Kenosis Christology is based on a conjugation of keno, w found in Philippians 2:7. The verb is often translated by moderately literal translations as “made . . . of no reputation” (KJV and NKJV);3 these apparently see the meaning as abasement. Translations that hold to a stricter literal translation philosophy follow the more customary definition and translate keno,w as “emptied” (NASB) or “did empty” (Young’s Literal Translation). The New Living Translation, based on a thought-for-thought method, follows after the idea of divestment: “gave up . . . divine privileges.” Most other modern English translations are close to one of these three renderings.

As evidenced by the variations among translations, each translation group employs different aspects of the semantic range in communicating the idea of kenosis. The lexical

1. Wesley J. Perschbacher, The New Analytical Greek Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1990), 236.

2. Ibid.

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