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The Kenosis of Christ

The meaning of Philippians 2:1-11 has been greatly debated in relation to the person of the incarnate Christ. It is the connotation of the Greek verb kenoo in verse 7 that is disputed. It is generally translated as either "made Himself of no reputation" or "emptied Himself." Simply stated, the question that is raised is, "In His 'kenosis,' when He came to earth, did Christ empty Himself of any or all aspects of deity?"

That He possessed the attributes of deity before the incarnation is stated in verse 6. The word "form" does not refer to external appearances, but rather to the essential attributes of deity. He did not merely appear as God; He was God. "Form of God" must have as much reality as the parallel phrase, "form of a servant" in verse 7. If He was really a servant, as those who deny His deity are quite happy to admit, then He was also really God. According to this passage, you cannot have the reality of one without the reality of the other.

But in what sense does Paul mean that Christ emptied Himself at the incarnation? "Emptied" may be a misleading translation because it connotes Christ's giving up or losing some of His divine attributes during His earthly life, and that was not the case. Therefore, the kenosis should not be understood to mean a subtraction of deity but rather the addition of humanity with its consequent limitations. Indeed, in the passage itself, the verb "emptied" is explained by three participles which follow—taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and being found in fashion as a man. The kenosis is further explained in the text by the parallel clause which follows: "He humbled Himself." The idea is that by taking on humanity with its limitations, there was a humbling which, although real, did not involve the giving up of any divine attributes.

What is included in a proper statement of the true doctrine of the kenosis? The concept involves the veiling of Christ's preincarnate glory (John 17:5), the condescension of taking on Himself the likeness of sinful flesh (Romans 8:3), and the voluntary nonuse of some of His attributes of deity during the time of His earthly life (Matthew 24:36). His humanity was not a glorified humanity and was thus subject to temptation, weakness, pain, and sorrow. Choosing not to use His divine attributes is quite different from saying that He gave them up. Nonuse does not mean subtraction.

Condensed from A Survey of Bible Doctrine by Charles C. Ryrie. Used by permission of Moody Press.