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Holman Bible Dictionary

Kenosis

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(keh noh' ssihss) The act of Christ in emptying Himself of the form of God, taking on the form of a servant, and suffering death on a cross.

The biblical passage from which the theory of kenosis is derived is Philippians 2:6-11 (a passage considered by most modern scholars as an ancient hymn to Christ used in the early church). The kenotic theory of the incarnation takes its name from the Greek word, kenoo, used in Philippians 2:7 meaning “to make empty” (KJV translates the word “made himself of no reputation”).

According to the kenotic theory, when the Son of God was incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth, He “emptied himself” of some of His divine attributes (for example, omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence) and lived for a period on earth within the limitations of human existence. Jesus retained other divine attributes according to the theory (for example, holiness, love, and righteousness). Thus, while God is omnipotent (that is, all-powerful), Jesus' power while in the flesh was limited. While God is omniscient (that is, all-knowing), Jesus' knowledge was limited. Similarly, while God is omnipresent (that is, everywhere present), Jesus was limited with respect to space and distance. This theory is, then, an attempt to understand how Jesus could be both fully human and fully divine. This theory takes all of Jesus' human limitations with full seriousness without questioning the reality of His deity.

Two major criticisms of this theory must be noted. First, as was pointed out earlier, Philippians 2:6-11 is in all likelihood a hymn. As a hymn, it utilizes poetic language, which is highly figurative in nature. For example, when Isaiah (a poetic book) is read, one would not come away believing that mountains and hills have the ability to sing nor that the trees of the fields have the ability to clap their hands ( Isaiah 55:12 ). The ancient and modern reader alike would understand that figurative language was being used and not intended to be taken literally. In like fashion, when Paul said that Christ emptied Himself in Philippians 2:5-11 , he may have been saying that Jesus gave Himself sacrifically for the sake of others without intending to say anything about what attributes Christ gave up. One must decide if the language used here is literal or figurative.

Another criticism of the kenotic theory is that Paul's intention in using the hymn to Christ was for ethical rather than doctrinal purposes. That is to say, Paul was more intent on instructing the Philippians in how to live than in what to believe in this particular passage. The Philippians had exhibited selfishness and conceit in their relations with one another. Paul's exhortation to these Christians was to look not only to their own interests, but also to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4 ). The best example of selfless love and humility of which Paul was aware was the example of Jesus Christ. Therefore, Paul said to the Philippians, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5 ). Paul then quoted the hymn, which shows how Jesus gave of himself to the point of enduring death on a cross for the sake of others. Paul wanted the Philippian Christians to have the same attitude toward one another. Thus, if it was Paul's intention to give ethical rather than doctrinal instruction, some would say that to use this passage to speak primarily of doctrinal matters is a misuse of Scripture. See Christology; Incarnation

James Simeon and Phil Logan


Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Kenosis'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/k/kenosis.html. 1991.

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