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Chuck Smith, Kenosis, Again

Chuck 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 article on the CARM (Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry), which classifies it under the category “heresies”. Very simply Kenosis theory is an attempt to explain how Christ could be a man (with the limitations of humanity) and God at the same time and it specifically deals with Philippians 2:6-7.

This post is important.  The nature of Christ, our definition and understanding of who He is, is a critical and primary doctrine.  It has been debated, and is presently debated, yet there is a correct perspective. A singular and undisputed answer to the question of the nature of Christ that has been historically and traditionally affirmed and held to by the church.  It is not up for grabs or re-interpretation.  Here is the creed of the council of Chalcedon which has served as the defining voice of our understanding of the revealed Christ:

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood;
truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body;
consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood;
in all things like unto us, without sin;
begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood;
one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably;
the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ;
as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us. **

From the discussions of the early church regarding the nature of Christ, and there were many, this statement established the agreed upon understanding of the early church regarding the nature of Christ.  Rejected views included Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, Eutychianism and others.  Essentially what we believe about the nature of Christ is that he is one person with two natures.  He is fully human and fully God, at the same time including the time of His incarnation.  Kenotic Theory denies this essential understanding of the nature of Christ.

Kenosis theory denies the full deity of Christ during his human incarnation.  It claims that Jesus laid aside his divine attributes of omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence while on the earth in human flesh.  The various views of Kenosis often see those attributes restored to Jesus upon His ascension into heaven.  This is the view put forward by Chuck Smith in the audio clip I have provided at the end of this post.  He says that in order for Christ to become a man he had to lay aside his divine characteristics of omniscience and so forth, fully restored to that place later on.

Here are the problems:

  1. It is logically contradictory in that it states that Jesus is God and is not God at the same time. You cannot remove essential attributes of something and continue to call it that same thing.  God is by definition omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent.  A being that is not omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent is not God.  The human nature of Jesus had all the constituent parts of humanity.  The divine nature of Christ has all the constituent parts of divinity.  That is what “fully human fully God” means.
  2. It confuses the natures of Christ. The doctrine affirms one person with two natures.  When we emphasize the human nature in Christ (who touched me?; he sleeps; not knowing the hour; dying) we are careful not to confuse the natures.  The distinction of the natures and the union of the natures (known in theology as the hypostatic union) maintain their integrity.  Each nature is complete and full.  Jesus is fully God (ie, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent) while at the same time fully human (able to be tempted, susceptible to death).  Kenosis theory confuses the natures by robbing Christ of divinity simply because the Bible speaks of his real humanity.
  3. It robs the atonement. If Christ is not fully God, then the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is limited in scope.  He would be unable to bear the full penalty of sin upon himself, only God could do that.
  4. It violates the plain meaning of the text. The passage in question is Philippians 2:6-7.  In this passage we are told that  “Jesus…who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.”  The context of this verse is humility and service and the injunction to follow the example of Christ.  The example given is of the humility of Christ in attitude, the attitude of a servant that Jesus takes on supremely exemplified by becoming human.  It says nothing of laying aside essential attributes of His divine nature, nor are we to lay aside any of our attributes in following this example. He did not regard equality of position something to grab, rather, he submits himself to the Father and carries out the mission of the incarnation. It says nothing of ridding himself of omniscience or any other attribute.   The primary thrust of the passage is the example of Christ as a servant.

So we come to Chuck Smith.  Why name names?  Why not handle this personally, as the Scriptures say to do?  Why not talk to your brother in private and if you convince him you have won your brother and settled a problem appropriately.  I wish I could.  I have been following this issue for a while and have written several emails and letters to Pastor Chuck and members of his staff.  Although publicly Pastor Chuck says he responds to every letter he receives, I have received no response.  My letters have been irenic and respectful.  Some people are beyond the scope of my capacity to gain a voice or an audience.  If any of you have that capacity, you should use it.

I believe this is important because the program that is broadcast locally on KWVE and globally via the internet and other radio stations is widely listened to and the claim on the part of  Pastor Chuck is that this is the Christian viewpoint.  He speaks for Christianity on his program.  The program is “authoritative”, meaning there is a strong claim on the program that the answers we give are Biblical and reflect “the Christian” understanding of the Bible.  In fact and with high irony, the answer given in the following clip is in response to a caller who is trying to answer a Jehovah’s Witness.  Chuck’s answer is as wrong as the Jehovah’s Witness view he is criticizing as heretical.  Brian Broderson criticizes the JW’s for not being corrected when they make clear errors.  It is ironic how this same attitude is classically portrayed by themselves in this broadcast. Don Stewart is also part of the answer team, a fellow Talbot grad who generally does a good job but needs to go back and amend his statements regarding Jesus in this program.

I write this if not for anyone else but those who both read my blog and listen to Chuck.  He is not a theologian and he is often mistaken when he talks about theological details.  He is a great pastor and has a great legacy, but he is just a guy (he would be the first to say it).  Listen carefully, and check stuff out.  On this issue he is very wrong.  I think the issue is important enough that someone of the stature and influence of Chuck Smith should not be given a pass on bad doctrine because he is likable.

So take a listen.  This answer given is at minimum wrong, considered by most Christians to be heresy.   (Pastor’s Perspective Broadcast, June 30, 2009.  Clip begins at 49:36 and continues to 53:03)

Maybe you think I am overreacting and the issue is not that clear or important.  Make a comment I would love to hear your perspective.

** Chalcedonian Creed. (2009, July 2). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 01:27, July 2, 2009, from

Some thoughtful and interesting works on Philippians 2:1-11:

“The Frog Prince, The Matrix, and the Way of the Cross: A Meditation on Philippians 2:5-11” by Bruce Fisk
“Response to “The Frog Prince, the Matrix, and the Way of the Cross” by Bruce N. Fisk” by Telford Work

12 Responses

  1. Chuck’s answer was just plain bizarre. Why can’t there be an “ask the pastor” show with people who actually know what they are talking about?

    1. Doug,

      No kidding.

      Part of my frustration about the show and the format is that there is not “challenge” allowed. The show is definitely non-polemical and was part of what I was getting at when I called the show “authoritative”, not that they should be used as an authority, rather that they hold themselves up as authority and allow for no interaction to the contrary even if it is respectful.

      I miss you man. Hope things are going well for you.

  2. Doug,

    Thanks for writing about this. I was beginning to think I was the only one concerned about the increasing popularity of the kenosis idea among evangelicals. I did my PhD thesis on the kenosis and found it not only inconsistent with Scripture and orthodox theology, but also unnecessary. We do not need to compromise the truth about Jesus to make the gospel fit contemporary thinking. Jesus is God, fully and forever.

    I have had the opportunity to interview in depth nearly 300 seminary grads on this and other doctrinal issues. I found that nearly a fourth of them had a compromised idea of the attributes of God in Christ and most of them referred to teaching on the kenosis to back up their arguments. These men came from several well-known seminaries across the country. Chuck Smith is certainly not the only one who has accepted this doctrine and speaks of it openly.

    So, thanks for speaking up!


  3. Oops. I see that I should have addressed my comment to Steve, not Doug. Sorry.

    The Chuck Smith link didn’t work for me at first but I have had a chance to listen to it now. His answer is typical, dumb, but typical. I have brought this to a head with several men by asking whether Jesus still has a physical body. If they say yes, I ask why that physical body, if it was the cause of His limitation as Smith suggests, doesn’t limit Him now. And, if it continues to limit HIm, then how could He say that He would be with us?

    Interestingly, most of the men answer with this: He is present with us now in the Person of the Holy Spirit. The only problem with that is that it denies the Trinity and steps into the modalist mire. Far better to assert that Jesus continued to have the attributes of God, mostly hidden, but still fully available and active. The fact that we do not understand how this is possible is part of the mystery affirmed and celebrated by Chalcedon.


    1. Hey Dave,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. Great topic for your PhD.

      I too am concerned at the lack of concern on the part of most people with regard to this issue and even more surprisingly on the doctrine of the Trinity. There seems to be a “does it really matter” mentality out there. It is prevalent among pastors, and the attitude definitely trickles down to the average Christian in the pew.

      I would love to see your material, especially the interviews with Seminary grads and their views. I serve on the Credentials Committee for our district and we interview potential pastors regarding their lifestyle, call and doctrine. I am regularly amazed at the responses, especially at the lack of competency with the doctrine of the Trinity.
      There has been a lot of talk about the decline of evangelicalism, I have a sense that it is because we are abandoning passion for doctrine.

  4. the problem i think is our temporal thinking, Jesus was on earth for 33 years, not taking into account Christophanies, but He’s in heaven right now at the right hand of the Father, which is outside of time, so he’s both – limited on earth – He Died, and God can’t die eternally, so He rose again to prove it – unlimited in Heaven. The problem is, we tend to put a human box on God, and miss the point. God’s bigger than that box, Jesus created the universe and everything in it! Stuff like this doesn’t negate the deity of Christ, so why fight over it? Let’s live and preach the gospel instead of fighting over perceived differences! love you, in the Savior!

  5. Thanks Tim for reading and commenting, and for your irenic spirit…

    “so why fight over it?”

    Because it is important, and it is more than a perceived difference, it is an actual difference and an error, and it does in fact negate the deity of Christ. That is the point of the post. My concern is for the integrity of the church and when we have these sorts of disagreements on primary issues, it distorts our message.

    Your one phrase is curious: “God can’t die eternally.” God can’t die, period. God didn’t die, Jesus (the human Jesus) died. His humanity died, His divinity did not die. That is the point. To say that God dies, or that God is not omnipotent, or that God is not omniscient, or that God is not omnipresent is a non sequitur, it doesn’t make sense.

    Now I want to be kind, humble and open to correction, I think we all should. When we engage in these discussions we sharpen our understanding and communication of the truth and the gospel.

    Thanks for the love…

  6. What is the differance between the attributes of God being “laid aside” and “mostly hiden” as DaveO puts it?

  7. Rob,
    Sorry for the late reply, took a hiatus from the blog for a while.

    The difference between being laid aside and hidden is significant. To assert that Jesus laid aside divine attributes diminishes his divinity, it is like saying he is not God.

    To assert that his divine attributes are hidden would imply that the Son retained his divinity, from a human perspective they were hidden, ie not perceived. We don’t see them, He still possesses them.

    I would prefer not to speak about them either way. The point is that Jesus (humanity) is totally human and the divine is not mixed into his humanity. The two natures are distinct and separate, not mingled. When we look at Jesus in human form we should not expect to see divine aspects just as if we were to see the Son in his full divine glory should we expect it to be diminished by human attributes.

  8. Throughout this awesome design of things you actually secure an A for effort. Where exactly you lost me personally ended up being in your facts. You know, people say, the devil is in the details… And that couldn’t be more correct right here. Having said that, allow me say to you what did work. The writing is actually pretty engaging which is most likely why I am taking the effort to comment. I do not really make it a regular habit of doing that. Secondly, whilst I can easily see the jumps in reasoning you make, I am not necessarily confident of exactly how you seem to unite the details that help to make the final result. For right now I will subscribe to your issue however wish in the near future you actually link the facts much better.

  9. This might provided a strong practical arguement against the heresy of Smith.

    When it comes to specific instances or accounts of Christ exercising his full deity through specific manifestations of being omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient the record simply is silent, but that doesn’t mean you jump to the opposite conclusion Christ emptied Himself of those attributes.

    Chuck Smith is simply dumb in his assertion because how can anyone record the manifestation of being omnipresent?

    Practically speaking the Bible was written by mortal men who are not omnipresent so they can only account for what they see not what they don’t see.

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