The “Kenosis,” a transliteration of the Greek word for “emptying” used in Philippians 2:7 represents a specific doctrine under the general subheading of Christology (the study of Christ) and refers to the mysterious process that the Second Person of the Godhead (the Son) willingly initiated in order to dwell in the flesh as Jesus the Messiah. In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi, he states that Jesus was in the “form” of God and “emptied” himself of some of His divine attributes to become fully human in every sense, thus qualifying to serve as the sufficient propitiation for the sins of all mankind for all times. Paul says that, in Colossians 2:9, that the fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily in Jesus, so Christ mysteriously also never stopped being fully God during His period of incarnation. By faith, Christians believe that Jesus was then both fully God and fully man without any sin, though we are not told more specifically in Scripture how Jesus accomplished this. Any theories that we develop beyond what we are clearly and explicitly told in the Bible are precisely that: they are theories only. We only attempt to explain concepts that are mysteries that are not fully revealed to us.
Based upon the exegesis of several New Testament Scriptures, the Person of the Son (the best analogy that God chose for us to understand the relationship between the Divine Persons) was “face-to-face” with the Father but freely surrendered that status in order to suffer incarnation on our behalf. Note that Saint Augustine argued against the use of the term “person” to describe the Divine Three because of the tendency towards anthropomorphization (anthropos, the Greek word for man), a sinful remaking and perceiving of God in man’s likeness rather than by analogy. Tertullian first coined the term “Trinity” (coinage traditionally attributed to him) to describe the unity of three describing the Godhead in Scripture in his writings during the early Third Century.
Formal Development of the Doctrine of the Kenosis
In the late 1800s, a fellow named Gottfried Thomasius believed that Martin Luther failed to attribute fair attention to the humanity of Jesus through his teachings on the “communication of attributes.” Previous understanding of the kenosis maintained that Christ temporarily “suspended” the fullness of His divine attributes (implying concealment), while Thomasius maintained a new idea that Christ actually “divested” Himself completely of these attributes in order to change His form. Thomasius was among the first to distinguish between the “immanent” attributes of God (related to character and nature) and what he called the “relative” attributes which were surrendered to varied degrees (omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence). Elements of Thomasius’ theory suggest that the Son did not truly communicate with human flesh but rather hovered over it because he could not manage to understand and explain the element of imperfection to which all mankind was subject, perceiving imperfection as an essential element of humanity.
At about the same time, Wolfgang Friedrich Gess developed a similar idea about the kenosis, one that is described as “incarnation by divine suicide” wherein Christ “reduces Himself to the germ of the human soul.” In contrast to Thomasius, Gess believed that Christ emptied Himself of ALL divine attributes, both immanent and relative. Isaac August Dorner, another German Lutheran who was perceived as an opponent to kenotic theory, also developed a different theory from these two which he viewed as a dynamic, ongoing process of kenosis rather than a moment of complete divestment of the Divine that thus ended with the Resurrection of Jesus. He believed that throughout Jesus’ life that He gradually took on more and more of the fullness of God as He progressed through His human life which he believed satisfied the disparagement of the mystery between the tension of Christ’s Divinity and His human limitations. Other theories suggested that Christ lived a “double life” wherein the incarnation was just an intersection of both humanity and Divine. And as mentioned earlier, there were those who believed that Jesus just “concealed” and willingly refrained from using His Divine attributes rather than actually divesting Himself of them, as theologians like Anslem believed.
What In Heaven and On Earth Happened in 1977?
Challenges to Aspects of the Doctrine of the Kenosis
The Myth of God Incarnate
From “ Why Has God Incarnate Suddenly Become Mythical?”
by John Warwick Montgomery
Remarkably, however, 1977 saw the publication of an influential volume by a team of seven British theologians, one of them the chairman of the Church of England's Doctrinal Commission, expressly arguing, contra the apostolic witness, that God's incarnation in Christ is mythical. Indeed, The Myth of God Incarnate, edited by John Hick, takes a position from within the church which differs in no material respect from that of such contemporary secular detractors of incarnational Christianity as historian Hugh Trevor-Roper.
Why, we might well ask, has this sudden onslaught against incarnational Christology come about? One might expect that a radical denial of the two-millennia-old central teaching of the church militant would require at very least the discovery of new and better documentation concerning Jesus-documentation that would show the fallaciousness of the eyewitness portrait that has been the church's heritate. However, no such historical discovery preceded the advent of John Hick's book. Is the explanation simply cultural, the logical consequence of the death-of-God theologies of the sixties and the secular Christianity of the seventies, and these in turn the inevitable product of the humanistic climate of opinion of our time? Occasionally, the contributors to The Myth of God Incarnate seem to attribute their denials of the incarnation to such factors, as in the following (typically Bult-mannian) passage:
The Christians of the early church lived in a world in which supernatural causation was accepted without question, and divine or spiritual visitants were not unexpected. Such assumptions, however, have become foreign to our situation. In the Western world, both popular culture and the culture of the intelligentsia has come to be dominated by the human and natural sciences to such an extent that supernatural causation or intervention in the affairs of this world has become, for the majority of people, simply incredible.
Indirect Challenge of the Traditional Understanding of Christ’s Deity by George W. Knight III (Christ did not empty Himself of authority and role because his limitations of the flesh were attributed to an ETERNAL lack of authority in Christ that existed before the kenosis.)
From “Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity” by Kevin Giles (Zondervan, 2006), pages 20 - 21
George Knight III, in his highly influential book “New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women,” published in 1977, formulated an entirely new set of theological arguments in support of the permanent subordination of women... In developing his novel case, Knight also argued that this God-given permanent subordination of women in role and authority in the church and home was supported and illustrated by the Trinity. For him, the Son is eternally subordinated in role and authority to the Father, despite the fact that the Father and Son are fully divine. He thus speaks of a “chain of subordination” and of an eternal subordination of the Son that has “certain ontological aspects.” This new teaching on the Trinity came to full fruition in 1994 with the publication of Wayne Grudem’s "Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine.”...
For Grudem, the Son’s role subordination, like that of women, is not a matter of who does certain things, as we might expect on seeing the world role, but rather the matter of who commands and who obeys...
[Concerning the book “God Under Fire: Modern Theology Reinvents God” (2002)] The chapter on the Trinity is written by Bruce Ware... He claims that historic orthodoxy teaches that Son of God is “equal in being, eternally subordinate in role.” The Trinity is a “functional hierarchy.” There is an “eternal relationship of authority and obedience grounded in the eternal immanent inter-Trinitarian relationships of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” If God is rightly called “Father,” then Ware holds the divine Father must be set over the divine Son, for human fathers always have authority over their sons. It is contemporary theologians, he argues, who speak of a coequal Trinity who have broken with historic orthodoxy!