Why I am uncomfortable using “emptying” language with regard to Christ’s Incarnation

In discussions of the relationship between Christ’s human and divine natures one often hears kenotic language, that is, the language of “emptying.

Kenotic language “focuses on the person of Christ in terms of some form of self-limitation by the pre-existent Son in his becoming man” (EDT, 600). The article in EDT goes on to note that kenotic Christology has been universally rejected either explicitly or in principle (601).

For more comprehensive (and technical) overview of what is wrong with kenotic Christology, see Rodney Decker’s notes on this here.

Here is my summary (from Decker) of why the language of emptying in relation to Phil. 2:5-11 is inappropriate(the page numbers are from the pdf):

1. The term μορφή (vv. 6, 7) must be understood not in light of Greek philosophy but the LXX where it is used to refer to the visible form not to one’s essential attributes.

2. The term ἴσος (v. 6) refers (cf. its use in John 5:18) to “the equality of dignity, will, and nature” (TDNT 3:353) which Christ “can neither renounce nor lose” (Ibid. both cited by Decker, 5)

3. The word ἁρπαγμός (v. 6) is hapax (meaning this is the only time it is used in the NT; note also that it is not used in the LXX). Here it is used as a predicate adjective and when used as such “it does not have the same sense…as in other contexts.” (Decker, 6) We must derive its meaning from extra-biblical Hellenistic Greek which leads us to render the verse: “he did not regard being equal with God as something to use for his own advantage” (Decker, 6)

4. While the word κενόω (v. 7) can mean “to empty,” in light of what we have already seen about the phrase ἴσα θεῷ above, the text provides no understanding of what exactly Christ emptied himself. Decker says that all the options proposed (that Christ emptied himself of deity, his attributes, or the use of his attributes) “pose major theological problems that seriously affect the person of Christ” (Decker 6).

5. There is, however, another semantic category for κενόω which is the category used exclusively by Paul. BDAG indicates this category is a metaphorical use of the word “empty” and renders it “destroy; render void, of no effect.” The four other times Paul uses κενόω (1 Cor. 9:15; Rom. 4:14; 1 Cor. 1:17; and 2 Cor. 9:3) it is with this rendering (see Decker’s translation on p. 7). It is easy to see which option one should choose.

I would add that it is easy to see this from the translations. Note that of the major evangelical translations (KJV, NKJV, ESV, NASB, and NIV), the only one that has “emptied” is NASB (which I think is odd considering it’s NASB, but that’s another matter).

For these reasons, I am not comfortable with any language of “emptying” with regard to the Incarnation. The language of “emptying” should be avoided and instead language that says “made himself nothing” or “made himself of no reputation” is preferred.

In summary, what you can say is that Jesus possessed the divine attributes though he did not exercise them while in his humanity. But if you use Philippians 2 to support this, you will be citing an irrelevant text. But it’s best to avoid the language of “emptying” altogether.

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About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
This entry was posted in Christology, Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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