Kenosis and God’s Eternal Nature
A growing number of Christians think Jesus’ kenotic love tell us something about God’s essential nature. If true, this sheds light on ongoing questions about the relationship between divine love and power.
The verb form of the Greek word “kenosis” appears about a half dozen times in the New Testament. Perhaps the most discussed appearance comes in the Apostle Paul’s letter to believers in the city of Philippi. Here is the Philippians text in the New Revised Standard Version translation, including verses surrounding the word “kenosis” to provide context for help finding its meaning:
“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself (kenosis), taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:3-13).
What Does It Mean?
All Scripture requires interpretation. Theologians interpret this passage in various ways and apply it to various issues. Before looking at those interpretations, let me summarize the context in which we find the word “kenosis.”
The passage begins with Apostle Paul’s ethical instructions: look to the interests of others, not your own. He points to Jesus Christ, who is divine, as the primary example of someone who expresses other-oriented love. Jesus’ love is evident, says Paul, in his diminished power and his service to others. The weakness of the cross is an especially powerful example of Jesus acting for the good of others. God endorses Jesus’ other-oriented love, and God enables those who follow Jesus’ example to pursue salvation. God desires that we take this approach to life. Paul tells readers to pursue the good life (salvation) fastidiously.
When considering the meaning of kenosis in this passage, most theologians in previous centuries focused on the phrase just prior to kenosis: “(Jesus) did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” They believed it provided clues for explaining Jesus’ humanity and divinity.
At a fifth-century meeting in Chalcedon, Christian theologians issued a statement saying Jesus Christ has two natures “communicated to” one person. Jesus is the God-human, they said, because he is fully divine and fully human.
Theologians thereafter pondered which divine attributes Jesus retained in his human life and which, as a result of self-emptying, he did not. The Chalcedonian creedal statement offers little to no help in answering the specifics of this issue. Theologians today still ponder how Jesus is both human and divine.
Kenosis Tells Us about God
In recent decades, however, discussions of kenosis have shifted. Instead of appealing to kenosis in the debate over how much of God’s nature Jesus possesses, theologians today use kenosis primarily to describe how Jesus reveals God’s nature. Instead of imagining how God may have relinquished attributes when becoming incarnate, many now think Jesus’ kenosis is less about relinquishing attributes and more about telling us who God is and how God acts.
The contemporary shift to thinking of kenosis as Jesus’ revealing God’s nature moves theologians away from phrases in the passage preceding kenosis. Many now read kenosis primarily in light of “taking the form of a slave,” “humbled himself,” and “death on a cross.” These phrases focus on Jesus’ diminished power and his service to others. They describe forms of other-oriented love.
I follow the contemporary trend of interpreting kenosis primarily as Jesus’ qualified power, other-orientation, and servant love. This interpretation seems more fruitful overall than discussions about what might be communicated between Christ’s two natures, although I don’t mean to say such discussions have no place. My interpretation also helps us consider God’s essential power given God’s loving nature and orientation toward loving creation. Consequently, I refer to kenosis to talk not so much about how God became incarnate as who God is in light of incarnate love.
In short, we know something about God’s eternal nature in the light of Jesus Christ’s kenotic love.