Friday, October 5, 2012

Philippians 2:5-11 & Kenotic Theology

Sunday night we'll be discussing Philippians 2:5-11 - the most discussed passage in the entire book. This is a central passage in our understanding of the Person and Nature of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Let us not simply overlook it and pretend it doesn't matter. It is one of those passages that defines our faith.

The context of this hymn/confession given to us by Paul here regards unity, humility, and joy. Verses 1-4, Paul exhorts the church to be unified. The key to unity is humility and the outcome of this is joy. From there he moves from the exhortation - "be unified in the gospel - to the example. And here he points to us to Christ.

Perhaps the most debated verses of this portion of Scripture is vs. 5-7. Some have suggested that Jesus surrender portions of His deity by becoming a man. Usually people point to His omnipresence, omniscience, etc. This is know as the Kenosis Theory or Kenotic Theology and it has some real problems with the text and with its implications.

In his book Systematic Theology: An Introduction, Dr. Wayne Grudem argues against the Kenotic Theology and shows why the traditional view is better.

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 kenosis is taken from the Greek verb kenoo, which generally means "to empty," and is translated "emptied himself" in Phil. 2:7.) According to this 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.

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' (Philippians 2:7). 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'(Philippians 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 int his 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' (Philippians 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' (Philippians 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, 

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' (Philippians 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 quality 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. 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.”

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. 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.
-Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 550-552

For more:
Grudem on the Deity of Christ 
The Gospel Coalition on the Deity of Christ 
Mahaney on the Person and Work of Christ:  Christ Our Mediator  
Stomach Virus' and the Humanity of Christ:  Moore on the Suffering and Sick Servant
Sayers on the Incarnation of Christ  
If Jesus Were Born in Our Digital Age 
December 26, 2010 - Jesus is Human
December 19, 2012 - Jesus is God

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