Monday, March 30, 2015

An Empty God if no God at All: A Rebuttal of the Doctrine of Kenosis

It would seem to the human intellect that the incarnation is impossible because many attributes of God seem inconsistent with the attributes of man. It is this concern that led to the kenosis theory of the incarnation, which in its strongest form [1], states that Christ “emptied himself” of His divine attributes to become man, meaning that the incarnate Christ did not possess omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence, etc. 

Today, we will examine the modest aim of explaining that while this model of the incarnation may fit with views of open theism, it cannot reconcile itself to the views of orthodox Christianity. We will see this by examining first the flawed exegesis that presented kenosis, then three distinct heretical entailments of the kenotic model.

Usage of Kenoō in Philippians 2

Proponents of the kenosis model of the incarnation point to Philippians 2:7-11 for support. Within this verse, Paul utilizes the Greek word, kenoō, which can be translated as “to empty.” Proponents of the kenotic model believe that this is the correct translation and thus believe that this passage indicates that Christ had to empty Himself of divine attributes in order to become man. 

However, a closer examination of this verse indicates that this interpretation is flawed. As Wayne Grudem supports in his book, Systematic Theology[2], the context of Philippians is referring to Christ “taking on the form of a servant.”[3] 

Additionally, Grudem points out that Paul is urging the Philippians to follow Christ’s example;[4] however, we humans cannot lay aside divine attributes in the way that Christ would have. Thus, Paul could not be telling us that we should follow Christ’s example in emptying ourselves from divine attributes. 

Instead, “kenoō,” would fit more with the idea of Christ’s actions, rather than His abilities themselves. This further matches with the way in which the apostle Paul uses this word in the rest of His epistles. In all of these, the meaning of the word goes by the definition, “made nothing.”[5] 

The case becomes clearer when you take into consideration the context of the Bible as a whole, which time and time again confirms, for instance, the omniscience of Jesus Christ.[6] As you can see, enosis theology really lacks a solid biblical foundation.

Immutability of Christ

Also, kenosis does not account for the scriptural account of Jesus’ immutable nature. Hebrews 13:8 confirms that Jesus Christ is “the same: yesterday, today, and forever.” Just like God the Father, Jesus does not experience change. 

However, theologian R.C. Sproul clearly lays out, 
If God laid aside one of his attributes, the immutable undergoes a mutation, the infinite suddenly stops being infinite.”[7] 

Simply, the divine omni-traits are part of who Christ is, and if He gave them up to be human, He would have been changing His unchangeable nature. 

In a paper supporting kenosis, Robin Poidevin admitted that kenosis cannot actually account for those who believe Christ should be immutable.[8] But how would we respond to Poidevin’s implicit denial of the immutability of Christ? As we have already seen, the Scriptures clearly teach us that Christ is always the same and unchanging, which is why orthodox Christianity has always accepted the immutability of Christ.

The Deity of Christ

Further, when you strip Jesus of divine capabilities, it becomes difficult to claim that He is fully God and fully man, rather than just being an elevated man. Indeed, if Jesus has no divine attributes, what makes Him any different from a redeemed man in the Resurrection? After all, Jesus would then solely be a sinless man working to redeem men, so that in Heaven, they can be sinless men. 

But this presents one of two problematic heresies. Either we as redeemed men are going to be deified in heaven, or Jesus in human form is no longer God. If the former, then kenosis has opened the door for blatant polytheism. 

If the latter (as seems more likely), kenosis has made the incarnation of none effect, as a mere sinless human is incapable of actually cleansing us of our sin. Wayne Grudem explains that only an infinite God could bear the punishment of sin for the whole world; further, the entire message of scripture is dedicated to the fact that mankind is incapable of saving itself.

Proponents of kenosis would respond to this argument by saying that they are leaving Jesus with his necessary properties, and are simply taking non-essential properties away. However, as A.W. Pink says, 
“There is no other possible alternative between an absolutely supreme God, and no God at all. A ‘god’ whose will is resisted, whose designs are frustrated, whose purpose is checkmated, possesses no title to Deity, and so far from being an object of worship, merits naught but contempt.”[9] 

At the point where they strip Jesus of His absolute power and knowledge, they subject His plans to the possibility of frustration. In a word, proponents of kenosis have stripped Him entirely of His deity.

How about Now? Kenosis and the Ascension

Not only does kenosis raise the question of Jesus’ divinity during the incarnation, but also His divinity at this very moment and for all eternity. Oliver Crisp goes to great lengths to demonstrate that kenosis fails to account for the orthodox position that Jesus remains human forever. 

Indeed, if in order to become human, Jesus had to relinquish His divine attributes, then He would have to continue to relinquish them as He continues as human throughout the rest of eternity.[10] 

Crisp is not alone in his thinking. Theodore Zachariades contends that after Christ ascended into heaven, it would seem that He gets His divine attributes back. But since Jesus had to give up His attributes to be human, the fact that He has them back must mean that He is no longer fully man. [11]

This understanding of the kenosis highlight the ultimate eternal implication to the nature of Jesus – either Jesus never regains His divine attributes, or Jesus loses His humanity. 

If the former, then it would seem that Jesus lacks the power to fulfill His mission as our “High Priest.”[12] Without omniscience, Jesus could lack the ability to know what we as Christians need in our lives, and without omnipotence, Jesus could lack the power to provide that which we needed. 

Thus, it seems that Jesus would need to regain His divine attributes, so that means that Jesus must no longer be man. The problem with this view is that it is directly contradicted by the words of the angels after Jesus ascended up into Heaven[13] as well as the words of John in the book of Revelation.[14] Further, Wayne Grudem points out that all of Jesus’ eternal positions (prophet, priest, and king) require Him to be fully God and fully man forever.[15]

An Empty Theory

Kenosis, as a theory of explaining the human knowledge of Christ, just naturally fails and leads to some rather heretical entailments. It would seem best to assume that Christ did not somehow lay aside (or lose access to) His divine attributes during this incarnation. We may never fully understand how Christ is able to be both divine and human, but understanding is not a requisite for belief. Regardless, kenosis is a huge step in the wrong direction.

[1] A weaker form of kenosis, called functional kenosis, has also emerged. This view holds that Christ possessed His divine attributes (like omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence), but that He simply couldn’t use them. However, as Theodore Zachariades points out, the divine attributes are defined in such a way that necessarily involves their ability to be exercised or used. In a word, functional kenosis is not functional. Theodore Zachariades, “"Δʟπƛην ϵπαγγλʟαν,an IN ATHANASIUS' CHRISTOLOGY: A METHODOLOGY TO COUNTER KENOTIC NOTIONS OF THE INCARNATION," American Theological Inquiry 5, no. 1 (2012), 75-77.
[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Leicester: IVP) 550
[3] Philippians 2:6-8 in full reads (all scripture quotations will be from the KJV), “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation (This is kenoō in Greek), and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”
[4] Philippians 2:5 “Let this mind be in you, which is also in Christ Jesus.”
[5] Rodney Decker, “Philippians 2:5-11: The Kenosis,” New Testament Resources (blog), January1, 2015. He points out the uses are, Romans 4:14 “faith is made void,” I Corinthians 1:17 “lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect,” I Corinthians 9:15 “that any man should make my glorying void,” 2 Corinthians 9:3, “Lest our boasting of you should be in vain.” These are not just the only uses of kenoō by Paul, but the only uses in the Greek New Testament. 
[6] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 547. John 16:30 “Now are we sure that thou knowest all things, and needest not that any man should ask thee: by this we believe that thou camest forth from God,” John 21:17, “He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.”
[7] R.C. Sproul, “How Could Jesus Be Both Divine and Human?" Northwestern Theological Seminary Online Library, February 5, 2008. In full, “If God laid aside one of his attributes, the immutable undergoes a mutation, the infinite suddenly stops being infinite; it would be the end of the universe. God cannot stop being God and still be God. So we can't talk properly of God laying aside his deity to take humanity upon himself.
[8] Robin Poidevin, “Kenosis, Necessity, and Incarnation,” Heythrop Journal 54, no. 2 (2013), 225. “Of course, kenoticism may be objectionable on other grounds. It will not, for example, be
acceptable to those who think of God as timeless and so immutable.” This quotation demonstrates that kenosis can be an open option for non-orthodox views, like open theism. It is outside the scope of this blog post to support orthodox Christianity against these views. Thus, as aforementioned, I am simply showing that kenosis does not fit with orthodox Christianity.
[9] Pink, Attributes of God (Pensacola: Chapel Library) 11.
[10] Crisp, Divinity and Humanity: Incarnation Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 133-137
[11] Zachariades, “IN ATHANASIUS' CHRISTOLOGY,” 61-62.
[12] Hebrews 4:14-15, “Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” Also see the rest of the book of Hebrews.
[13] Acts 1:11, “Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.”
[14] Revelation 1:13, “And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.”
[15] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 543.

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