Did Jesus divest himself of His divinity in Philippians 2:7? By Jack Kettler
“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 ESV)
What does it mean in Philippians 2:7 when it says Jesus emptied himself? Philippians 2:6 says Jesus “was in the form of God.” Does emptying himself have anything to do with His divinity? Was Jesus on earth a man only or the God/Man?
An aside: When interpreting the Scriptures, a private independent approach is not the correct way to ascertain the meaning of a Biblical text. It is vital to consult learned commentators of the Church. First, a traditional evangelical understanding of the passage will be helpful.
Barnes' Notes on the Bible provides a clear exposition of the Philippians 2:7 passage:
“But made himself of no reputation - This translation by no means conveys the sense of the original According to this it would seem that he consented to be without distinction or honor among people; or that he was willing to be despised or disregarded. The Greek is ἑαυτον ἐκένωσεν heauton ekenōsen. The word κενόω kenoō means literally, to empty, “to make empty, to make vain or void.” It is rendered: “made void” in Romans 4:14; “made of none effect,” 1 Corinthians 1:17; “make void,” 1 Corinthians 9:15; “should be vain,” 2 Corinthians 9:3. The word does not occur elsewhere in the New Testament, except in the passage before us. The essential idea is that of bringing to emptiness, vanity, or nothingness; and, hence, it is applied to a case where one lays aside his rank and dignity, and becomes in respect to that as nothing; that is, he assumes a more humble rank and station. In regard to its meaning here, we may remark:
Barnes in his points (1) – (3) says concerning Christ’s deity from the text is irrefutable:
(1) That it cannot mean that he literally divested himself of his divine nature and perfections, for that was impossible. He could not cease to be omnipotent, and omnipresent, and most holy, and true, and good.
(2) It is conceivable that he might have laid aside, for a time, the symbols or the manifestation of his glory, or that the outward expressions of his majesty in heaven might have been withdrawn. It is conceivable for a divine being to intermit the exercise of his almighty power, since it cannot be supposed that God is always exerting his power to the utmost. And in like manner there might be for a time a laying aside or intermitting of these manifestations or symbols, which were expressive of the divine glory and perfections. Yet,
(3) This supposes no change in the divine nature, or in the essential glory of the divine perfections. When the sun is obscured by a cloud, or in an eclipse, there is no real change of its glory, nor are his beams extinguished, nor is the sun himself in any measure changed. His luster is only for a time obscured. So it might have been in regard to the manifestation of the glory of the Son of God. Of course there is much in regard to this which is obscure, but the language of the apostle undoubtedly implies more than that he took an humble place, or that he demeaned himself in an humble manner. In regard to the actual change respecting his manifestations in heaven, or the withdrawing of the symbols of his glory there, the Scriptures are nearly silent, and conjecture is useless - perhaps improper. The language before us fairly implies that he laid aside that which was expressive of his being divine - that glory which is involved in the phrase “being in the form of God” - and took upon himself another form and manifestation in the condition of a servant.
In the next paragraph and following two points, Barnes explains the phrase “form of a servant:”
And took upon him the form of a servant - The phrase “form of a servant,” should be allowed to explain the phrase “form of God,” in Philippians 2:6. The “form of a servant” is that which indicates the condition of a servant, in contradistinction from one of higher rank. It means to appear as a servant, to perform the offices of a servant, and to be regarded as such. He was made like a servant in the lowly condition, which he assumed. The whole connection and force of the argument here demands this interpretation. Storr and Rosenmuller interpret this as meaning that he became the servant or minister of God, and that in doing it, it was necessary that he should become a man. But the objection to this is obvious. It greatly weakens the force of the apostle's argument. His object is to state the depth of humiliation to which he descended, and this was best done by saying that he descended to the lowest condition of humanity and appeared in the most humble garb. The idea of being a “servant or minister of God” would not express that, for this is a term, which might be applied to the highest angel in heaven. Though the Lord Jesus was not literally a servant or slave, yet what is here affirmed was true of him in the following respects:
(1) He occupied a most lowly condition in life.
(2) He condescended to perform such acts as are appropriate only to those who are servants. “I am among you as he that serveth;” Luke 22:27; compare John 13:4-15.
And was made in the likeness of men - Margin, habit. The Greek word means likeness, resemblance. The meaning is he was made like unto people by assuming such a body as theirs; see the notes at Romans 8:3.” (1)
Some take issue with Barnes’ commentary and have a different understanding of “emptied himself.” This differing scheme is called the “Kenosis” theory.
What is the Kenosis theory? Dr. Joseph R. Nally explains:
What is Kenosis?
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 1:17). 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!
Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Harmony of the Gospels, Vol. 3.” (2)
From Dr. Nally’s article, the reader can see the danger of misinterpreting “emptied himself.” The Kenosis theory, at this point, is seen to be on very shaky ground.
From his contemporary Systematic Theology, theologian Wayne Grudem addresses the historical meaning of Philippians 2:7:
“Did Jesus Give Up Some of His Divine Attributes While on Earth? (The Kenosis Theory). Paul writes to the Philippians, 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 himself taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Phil. 2:5–7)Beginning with this text, several theologians in Germany (from about 1860–1880) and in England (from about 1890–1910) advocated a view of the incarnation that had not been advocated before in the history of the church. This new view was called the “kenosis theory,” and the overall position it represented was called “kenotic theology.”
The kenosis theory holds that Christ gave up some of his divine attributes while he was on earth as a man. (The word κενόσις is taken from the Greek verb κενόω, G3033, which generally means “to empty,” and is translated “emptied himself “in Phil. 2:7.) According to the theory, Christ “emptied himself “of some of his divine attributes, such as omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence, while he was on earth as a man. This was viewed as a voluntary self-limitation on Christ’s part, which he carried out in order to fulfill his work of redemption.27
But does Philippians 2:7 teach that Christ emptied himself of some of his divine attributes, and does the rest of the New Testament confirm this? The evidence of Scripture points to a negative answer to both questions. We must first realize that no recognized teacher in the first 1,800 years of church history, including those who were native speakers of Greek, thought that “emptied himself “in Philippians 2:7 meant that the Son of God gave up some of his divine attributes. Second, we must recognize that the text does not say that Christ “emptied himself of some powers” or “emptied himself of divine attributes” or anything like that. Third, the text does describe what Jesus did in this “emptying”: he did not do it by giving up any of his attributes but rather by “taking the form of a servant,” that is, by coming to live as a man, and “being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). Thus, the context itself interprets this “emptying” as equivalent to “humbling himself “and taking on a lowly status and position. Thus, the NIV, instead of translating the phrase, “He emptied himself,” translates it, “but made himself nothing” (Phil. 2:7 NIV). The emptying includes change of role and status, not essential attributes or nature.
A fourth reason for this interpretation is seen in Paul’s purpose in this context. His purpose has been to persuade the Philippians that they should “do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3), and he continues by telling them, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). To persuade them to be humble and to put the interests of others first, he then holds up the example of Christ: “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 himself, taking the form of a servant ...” (Phil. 2:5–7).
Now in holding up Christ as an example, he wants the Philippians to imitate Christ. But certainly he is not asking the Philippian Christians to “give up” or “lay aside” any of their essential attributes or abilities! He is not asking them to “give up” their intelligence or strength or skill and become a diminished version of what they were. Rather, he is asking them to put the interests of others first: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). And because that is his goal, it fits the context to understand that he is using Christ as the supreme example of one who did just that: he put the interests of others first and was willing to give up some of the privilege and status that was his as God.
Therefore, the best understanding of this passage is that it talks about Jesus giving up the status and privilege that was his in heaven: he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (or “clung to for his own advantage”), but “emptied himself “or “humbled himself “for our sake, and came to live as a man. Jesus speaks elsewhere of the “glory” he had with the Father “before the world was made” (John 17:5), a glory that he had given up and was going to receive again when he returned to heaven. And Paul could speak of Christ who, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor” (2 Cor. 8:9), once again speaking of the privilege and honor that he deserved but temporarily gave up for us.
The fifth and final reason why the “kenosis” view of Philippians 2:7 must be rejected is the larger context of the teaching of the New Testament and the doctrinal teaching of the entire Bible. If it were true that such a momentous event as this happened, that the eternal Son of God ceased for a time to have all the attributes of God—ceased, for a time, to be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, for example—then we would expect that such an incredible event would be taught clearly and repeatedly in the New Testament, not found in the very doubtful interpretation of one word in one epistle. But we find the opposite of that: we do not find it stated anywhere else that the Son of God ceased to have some of the attributes of God that he had possessed from eternity. In fact, if the kenosis theory were true (and this is a foundational objection against it), then we could no longer affirm Jesus was fully God while he was here on earth.28 The kenosis theory ultimately denies the full deity of Jesus Christ and makes him something less than fully God. S.M. Smith admits, “All forms of classical orthodoxy either explicitly reject or reject in principle kenotic theology.”29
It is important to realize that the major force persuading people to accept kenotic theory was not that they had discovered a better understanding of Philippians 2:7 or any other passage of the New Testament, but rather the increasing discomfort people were feeling with the formulations of the doctrine of Christ in historic, classical orthodoxy. It just seemed too incredible for modern rational and “scientific” people to believe that Jesus Christ could be truly human and fully, absolutely God at the same time.30 The kenosis theory began to sound more and more like an acceptable way to say that (in some sense) Jesus was God, but a kind of God who had for a time given up some of his Godlike qualities, those that were most difficult for people to accept in the modern world.3” (3)
Grudem’s entry on the Kenosis theory is in agreement with Dr. Nally. Both Grudem and Nally expose the danger of the Kenosis theory since it meddles with the very nature of God.
Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof’s article “Contra Kenosis” is valuable:
“The Kenotic Theories. A remarkable attempt was made in the so-called Kenosis doctrine to improve on the theological construction of the doctrine of the Person of Christ. The term Kenosis is derived from Philippians 2:7, which says that Christ “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant.” The Greek word here translated “emptied” is ekenosen, the aorist of kenoo. A misinterpretation of this passage became the Scriptural basis for the Kenosis doctrine, along with 2 Cor. 8:9. These passages were interpreted as teaching that Christ at the incarnation emptied or divested Himself of His divinity. But there are serious objections to this interpretation: (1) as Dr. Warfield has shown the rendering “emptied Himself” is contrary to the usual meaning of the term “to make oneself of no account” (Christology and Criticism, p. 375); and (2) the implied object of the action expressed is not Christ’s divinity, but His being on an equality with God in power and glory. The Lord of glory made Himself of no account by becoming a servant. However, the Kenoticists base on this passage and on 2 Cor. 8:9 the doctrine that the Logos literally became, that is, was changed into a man by reducing (depotentiating) Himself, either wholly or in part, to the dimensions of a man, and then increased in wisdom and power until at last He again assumed the divine nature.
This theory evidently resulted from a double motive, namely, the desire (1) to maintain the reality and integrity of the manhood of Christ; and (2) to throw into strong relief the exceeding greatness of Christ’s humiliation in that He, being rich, for our sakes became poor. It assumed several forms. According to Thomasius the divine Logos, while retaining His immanent or moral attributes of absolute power or freedom, holiness, truth and love, divested Himself temporarily of His relative attributes of omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience, but after the resurrection resumed these attributes. The theory of Gess, which was more absolute and consistent, and also more popular, is to the effect that the Logos at the incarnation literally ceased from His cosmic functions and His eternal consciousness, and reduced Himself absolutely to the conditions and limits of human nature, so that His consciousness became purely that of a human soul. It comes very close to the view of Apollinaris. Ebrard, a Reformed scholar, assumed a double life of the Logos. On the one hand, the Logos reduced Himself to the dimensions of a man and possessed a purely human consciousness, but on the other hand, He also retained and exercised His divine perfections in the trinitarian life without any interruption. The same ego exists at once in the eternal and in the temporal form, is both infinite and finite. And Martensen postulates in the Logos during the time of His humiliation a double life from two non-communicating centers. As the Son of God, living in the bosom of the Father, He continued His trinitarian and cosmic functions, but as the depotentiated Logos He knew nothing of these functions and knew Himself to be God only in the sense in which such knowledge is possible to the faculties of manhood.
This theory, once very popular in one form or another, and still defended by some, has now lost a great deal of its charm. It is subversive of the doctrine of the Trinity, contrary to that of the immutability of God, and at variance with those passages of Scripture, which ascribe divine attributes to the historical Jesus. In the most absolute and most consistent form, it teaches what La Touche calls “incarnation by divine suicide.” (4)
From His Systematic Theology, Berkhof lists additional objections to the Kenosis theory:
“3. OBJECTIONS TO THE KENOSIS DOCTRINE
a. The theory is based on the pantheistic conception that God and man are not so absolutely different but that the one can be transformed into the other. The Hegelian idea of becoming is applied to God, and the absolute line of demarcation is obliterated.
b. It is altogether subversive of the doctrine of the immutability of God, which is plainly taught in Scripture, Mal. 3:6; Jas. 1:17, and which is also implied in the very idea of God. Absoluteness and mutability are mutually exclusive; and a mutable God is certainly not the God of Scripture.
c. It means a virtual destruction of the Trinity, and therefore takes away our very God. The humanized Son, self-emptied of His divine attributes, could no longer be a divine subsistence in the trinitarian life.
d. It assumes too loose a relation between the divine mode of existence, the divine attributes, and the divine essence, when it speaks of the former as if they might very well be separated from the latter. This is altogether misleading, and involves the very error that is condemned in connection with the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.
e. It does not solve the problem, which it was intended to solve. It desired to secure the unity of the person and the reality of the Lord’s manhood. But, surely, the personal unity is not secured by assuming a human Logos as coexistent with a human soul. Nor is the reality of the manhood maintained by substituting for the human soul a depotentiated Logos. The Christ of the Kenotics is neither God nor man. In the words of Dr. Warfield His, human nature is “just shrunken deity.”
The Kenotic theory enjoyed great popularity in Germany for a while, but has now practically died out there. When it began to disappear in Germany, it found supporters in England in such scholars as D. W. Forrest, W. L. Walker, P. T. Forsyth, Ch. Gore, R. L. Ottley, and H. R. Mackintosh. It finds very little support at the present time.” (5)
The Kenosis theory is dangerous for the following two reasons. 1. It would mean that Jesus was not God during the time of His Kenosis. 2. If Jesus were not fully God, then His atoning work would not be sufficient to expiate sins.
As to what emptying means, Barns’ in his quotation above makes clear:
“The essential idea is that of bringing to emptiness, vanity, or nothingness; and, hence, it is applied to a case where one lays aside his rank and dignity, and becomes in respect to that as nothing; that is, he assumes a more humble rank and station.” (6)
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)
1. Albert Barnes, THE AGES DIGITAL LIBRARYCOMMENTARY, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Philippians, Vol. 2 p. 3543-3545.
2. Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). Article id – 46668
3. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan Publishing, 1994), p. 549-552.
4. Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines, (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1949), p. 124–26.
5. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing Co., 1938), p. 328–29.
6. Albert Barnes, THE AGES DIGITAL LIBRARYCOMMENTARY, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Philippians, Vol. 2 p. 3543.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com