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May 14

Kenosis Theory

Posted on Monday, May 14, 2007 in Christianity, Church, Theological

Maybe you have heard of it.

The Kenosis Theory has to do with the nature of Jesus. Orthodox Christian doctrine states that Jesus was and is fully God and fully man. Kenosis theory states that in his incarnation, Jesus gave up some of his divine attributes, typically his omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience. The theory was popular around the turn of the twentieth century, finding its beginnings at the beginning of the 19th century. This doctrine diminishes the deity of Christ and has been dismissed amongst Christians. Not everyone has gotten the memo.

Typically this issue is raised with passages like Mark 13:32: “But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” Often the answer given is the Kenosis theory. Basically the Kenosis theory answer goes like this: Jesus laid aside his omniscience when he took on humanity and this is why he “doesn’t know.”

Now the word kenosis comes from the Greek word “kenoo“, which means “to empty.” It is used in Philippians 2 and based upon a bad interpretation of this passage, people have concluded that Paul is referring to the nature of Christ in this passage. He is not.

Now, I have heard one popular pastor/radio personality consistently and regularly use Kenosis Theory to answer this particular question. I have written two letters to him in the past (and received no reply), and will write him another with regard to this particular instance. But since he is so prominent (especially in my region of the country) and is on the radio here (one of the few options for Christian radio in our region) I am going public in this blog in pointing out that Chuck Smith (Calvary Chapel) holds to the Kenosis theory. Some have called kenosis theory a heresy. In fact in an unfortunate juxtoposition of questions and answers, Chuck Smith referred his listeners to Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM) to get information about Christadelphians in one call, then referred to Kenosis Theory in the next. CARM categorizes Kenosis Theory as a heresy and a dangerous doctrine (Click here for article on Kenosis at CARM).

I don’t know who Chuck listens to, obviously it isn’t me – but it needs to be pointed out to him. This is not a small error, it has to do with the nature of Christ. Years ago, Benny Hinn described God has being three trinities. Each person of the trinity is himself a trinity, there are nine of them.

Who disciplines these guys when they speak and teach things contrary to Christian doctrine? That is an important discussion that needs to happen in the church.

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Bring on the comments

  1. Thanks for writing about heresy!

  2. Cade says:

    I didn’t quite see the danger in this theory until your linked article explained it:

    The Kenosis theory is a dangerous doctrine because if it were true then it would mean that Jesus was not fully divine. If Jesus was not fully divine, then His atoning work would not be sufficient to atone for the sins of the world.

    Wowza. That don’t sound like the gospel.

  3. Seems to me that Christians shouldn’t spend too much time trying to differentiate the various less-than-fully-divine theories (the granddaddy being Arianism, of course). You’ve either got a high Christology or a lower one. And if you think Kenosis is low enough to condemn someone as a heretic, they you’re probably condemning a whole lot of folks who think they’re Christian but aren’t quite sure about the who God/man thing. And as far as what is or isn’t the gospel, there’s a lot of different views on that, too.

  4. cade says:

    hearty, maybe Steve comes across a little harsh on chuck smith, but why bash Steve for trying to defend Christ’s divinity? Isn’t that kind of doing exactly what you said Christians shouldn’t? He is stating what he believes. The kind of stuff you expect on a blog. He has a high Christology and the conviction to defend it. It would be nice to see more people with such conviction. It’s nice to know what someone believes rather than what they don’t. Then you have something to discuss… or condemn.

    I guess I’m mistaken, but I thought the gospel was the bible. I must be way behind in the times.

  5. Actually, I do appreciate that Steve is writing about heresy. I think that if more folks understood just how convoluted orthodoxy is, the more likely they’d be to accept differing interpretations of the Gospel, or Gospels since there are at least four of them. Some folks have pointed out that we should speak of them as the “Good Newses,” “They are the accounts of differing communities who had an historical encounter with God and experience with the risen Christ after the resurrection….” Mark’s community, Luke’s community, Matthew’s community, John’s community, and others.

  6. cade says:

    Sorry about being condescending in the last sentence. I can be rude.

  7. You guys have been having so much fun without me…

    Heretic,

    I am curious as to what is convoluted to you in Orthodox Christianity. I agree with your assessment of community, a lost emphasis I think in our discussion of the gospels, God and church. Nonetheless, even though there are many gospels, it seems rather clear that there is a single gospel message.

    I haven’t spent a lot of time on your blog, but it seems to me that the common mistake that is made by the critics of orthodoxy is picking people who obviously don’t get it, or who haven’t gotten it but want to be right (orthodox) so they have aligned themselves with Xianity (Brand Xianity I think is what you label it) and are afraid of hard questions and harder answers. And yes they are judgmental and narrow, and unfortunately sometimes focus too much on the orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy or -can I make up a work – orthoagape. Ultimately I would like to arrive at truth in all three areas.

    My beef with Chuck is specifically that he is representing an orthodox viewpoint and speaking as an authority on orthodox Christianity, but misrepresents the position.

    The nature of Jesus is an important theological discussion. Landing on an orthodox (I mean that generally not apologetically) position would be important, don’t you think? You have an orthodox position that you think is right and appear fairly dogmatic and judgmental with regard to your position about what Jesus came to accomplish and how we should respond. What is your orthodox view of the nature of Jesus?

    It always seemed patently unfair to me that I would get lumped into the same category as say, Jerry Falwell. I have many areas of disagreement with the late preacher. But so often I get put into the same bucket with everyone from Benny Hinn to Jerry.

    You seem like an interesting guy and I will visit and contribute to the discussion on your site.

  8. I see you link to Truth or Fiction.com, Steve. I really like that site, too, especially when a friend forwards an e-mail with some outrageous claim. I usually can find what appears to be the truth pretty quickly at Truth or Fiction. I wish it were that easy with the truth claims of orthodox Christianity. Start with God. Why believe in a God of rewards and punishment? Because that’s the God of the Old Testament? But why believe that? The same can be said about the resurrection. Or (and that’s really what this thread is about) the nature of Jesus. Orthodox Christianity claims that Jesus is somehow fully human and fully divine, a unique status that was essential in order for him to redeem humankind. Fair enough. But others have believed differently: Arius, Origen, Pelagius, etc. Rather that accept that they are heretics just because a council of Bishops decided that they were, I choose to explore their beliefs (and the beliefs of others) and make my own judgment. So I’m pretty much an anti-Trinitarian Universalist who doesn’t believe in original sin. And yes, those beliefs probably add up to my own sort of orthodoxy…but not necessarily a dogma (I am open to change). At any rate, in answer to your question about what’s my view of the nature of Jesus, I’ll say this: I agree with Bishop Spong when he says that the way to Jesus’ divinity is through his humanity. And his humanity is exactly what gets short shrift when it comes to orthodox theology. What’s more important is my approach to Jesus, I believe. I earnestly want to discern the truth of his teachings, and I honestly want to have a relationship with the God that Jesus found so loving and forgiving. And my disposition keeps me from doing that within the bounds of orthodoxy. But I trust God and I am lead by the teachings of the living Jesus to believe that it’s all right for me to follow my own path in this regard. That’s pretty much it.

  9. Hey Heretic (do you really like that moniker???),

    I can hear a lot of myself in your comments…I like to think that I am open to change and i also like to think that I am coming to my own conclusions, not based on the decisions of a council of Bishops only but because of my own study of the evidence – whatever we can agree that might be. And that would be the key, is there a common ground upon which we can agree would serve as the source for truth in this area.

    I guess the thing that is most difficult for me is the second to last line in your comment:

    “But I trust God and I am lead by the teachings of the living Jesus to believe that it’s all right for me to follow my own path in this regard. That’s pretty much it.”

    I think your spirit in these lines and throughout the comment are admirable, and I want to share the irenic tone, but I can’t get myself to make the statement: “follow my own path.” Take away our discussion or orthodoxy, this goes against everything that Jesus exemplifies in his life. Maybe I am splitting a hair you are not offering, but shouldn’t we want to follow the path that Jesus paves for us? I am hoping that I am discovering what God is showing rather than finding a system that I feel comfortable with. I don’t always feel comfortable with orthodoxy. It troubles me often – so what. The issue isn’t my comfort level with orthodoxy. And I think that is an important posture if I am going to decipher truth from fiction. My personal response and opinion is only a part of the equation.

    “The way to Jesus divinity is through his humanity” An orthodox view of Christ would have no obvious argument with that statement…I think, if I understand. Fully God, fully man would value not diminish the human side.

    Finally, it seems to me that your earnest desire to discern truth about Jesus and his teaching is a godly disposition. I am always willing to be challenged by anyone with that desire.

    So Godspeed to you and I would love to continue dialog with you, for my sake.

  10. Actually, my blogamigos call me Hearty. As far as following one’s own path, seems to me that’s exactly what Jesus was doing. He didn’t care much for the restrictive conventions of his religion, or the low social status assigned to him by contemporary culture, or the threat of violence that permeated societies under Roman rule. He countered all of those oppressive factors with an authentic approach to life based on 1.) knowing that he was beloved of God, and 2.) treating others as if they, too, are beloved children of God. And he offered these tips for others who wished to follow a similar approach to life: 1.) Love God, 2.) Love your neighbors (and even your enemies), and 3.) Forgive, forgive, forgive. That’s the human Jesus to me. But as the Buddhists say, I don’t want to confuse the finger pointing at the moon for the moon. Jesus pointed the way to a life lived with God and for God. That doesn’t make him God.

  11. nathan says:

    Why not restate Kenosis the way Trinitarian doctrine is stated…with paradox. The idea is grounded in scripture…it just hasn’t been teased out as artfully as the Trinity.

    For example:
    Christ emptied (kenosis) himself of his divine attributes, yet remained divine as the fullness (pleroma) of the Godhead.

    This simple affirmation would stand easily within the stream of the tensions of Trinitarian doctrine.

    kenosis is a powerful idea if related to servanthood, the vulnerable loving of God, etc. etc. as a pattern for our own living in the world as Christ’s Body.

  12. You are absolutely correct, the servant attitude of Jesus is essential Christianity…
    The nature of Jesus as fully human and fully divine is already classified as “mystery.” How can he be both at once? Kenosis Theory attempts to answer this mystery in an inadequate manner. You cannot be “god” if you do not possess attributes of divinity.
    I like “mystery” over “paradox” because paradox may mean either a statement that seems contradictory but in fact may be true or a statement that is self-contradictory and therefore is false. Mystery has a history of usage in theology that I like better.
    The issue is the nature of the emptying (kenosis in Philippians 2). Philippians doesn’t give us the room to say that the emptying included divine attributes, rather the emptying corresponds to the idea in the trinity of economic subordination. The members of the trinity have equality in essence/nature, yet in their function there is a subordination.
    This tension is seen in Christ repeatedly. He is forever the God-man, so he is seated at the right hand of the Father, yet where two or three are gathered in his name – he is there.

  13. RG says:

    Geesh, Bags, write about something interesting. Who gives a crap about Kenosis? i want to read about Britney. Or maybe your take on Barry Bonds.

  14. [...] Smith is at it again.  A few years ago I wrote about his view of  Kenosis Theory and how it is an egregious error theologically, categorized by many as heresy.  See this brief [...]

  15. [...] attempted to address them in private as well as I can (letters, email etc), most recently on the Kenosis issue and in particular Chuck Smith’s expression of the substandard Christian Doctrine.  My [...]

  16. GEORGE JOHNSON says:

    PERHAPS YOU NEED TO LOOK A LITTLE DEEPER INTO PATRISTIC THEOLOGY!!! EASTERN ORTHODOXY DOES NOT SEE KENOSIS OR KENOTIC THEOLOGY IN TERMS OF ANY LIMITING OF CHRISTS’ DIVINITY AND HUMANITY, BUT IS A PNEUMATIC EXPERIENCE OF HYPOSTASIS THROUGH THE HOLY SPIRIT! NO ECUMENICAL COUNCIL, THERE WERE ONLY SEVEN, EVER CONDEMEND KENOTICISM! THAT IS THE PROBLEM WITH FUNDAMENTALISTS, YOU SEEM TO KNOW NEXT TO NOTHING ABOUT BASIC CHRISTIAN THEOLOGICAL HISTORY. BE CAREFUL WHO AND WHAT YOU IDENTIFY AS HERESY, IT MAY BE YOURSELF. YOURS IN CHRIST.

  17. stevebag says:

    George,

    Thanks for reading and responding.

    Perhaps indeed.

    Is it necessary to say absolutely nothing that makes sense or has any substance to an uninformed person like me? If I am so ignorant of Christian theological history wouldn’t it be incumbent upon you as a more spiritual one to gently instruct me. I am not opposed to being taught, or conversing in a civil manner.

    I am also not a fundamentalist, they also address me in all caps.

    I would be happy to entertain any theory that maintains the fullness of the humanity and divinity in the one person of Christ. Whatever it is that is meant by a “pneumatic experience of hypostasis through the Holy Spirit”(redundant by the way) I would gladly entertain. So instead of bluster, try adding to a discussion – especially if you have a superior explanation.

    Having said that, I don’t think that even in Eastern Orthodox theology kenosis (or its partner theosis) has to do with essential issues of the “nature” or ontology of Christ rather with his attitude (ie the denial of the will and subjection to the Father) and submission to the Holy Spirit as a servant, specifically a servant who goes to the cross. So please correct me if I am mistaken, i admit that EO theology has not been a part of my study in theology. Many apologies.