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(c) Martin Klimas

In discussing the hypostatic union, where divine nature and human nature are united in the one person, one of the difficulties is in asking the “how” question. How can Jesus be both fully human and fully divine?

One way that is often put forward to solve this problem is called a Kenotic Christology.

The content of this Christology – broadly stated – is that in becoming incarnate the second person of the trinity, God the Son, emptied himself of certain divine attributes that were incompatible with a human nature. Usually either his attribute of knowing everything or his attribute of being everywhere, either his omniscience or his omnipresence. Most Kenoticists hold to this broad definition, though there are also various ways in which it is explained.

But that’s the guts of it. The kenoticists are trying to safeguard the genuine humanity of Jesus. And this is a good thing.

And the Bible is very clear that Jesus is both totally divine while also being totally human. On the one hand is the ‘complete Godhood’ strand, perhaps most clearly seen in verses like Colossians 2:9: For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form. On the other hand is the ‘complete Manhood’ strand, perhaps most clear in Hebrews 2:17: [Jesus] had to be made like his brothers in every way.

Complicating matters further is evidence from the Gospels, as here the two strands often intertwine with each other. We see evidence of both Jesus’ Godlike knowing and power, but then in the same Gospel narratives we also have clear affirmations of his humanity. The two streams come together perhaps most sharply with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, where Jesus stops because he is thirsty yet displays supernatural knowledge.

The significance of these Biblical texts is to show that there is a legitimate tension in the Biblical portrayal of Jesus. This is not a question of the truthfulness of any of the passages. They’re all true. It is simply an acknowledgment that a tension exists, and that it needs to be acknowledgment and either reconciled or accepted.

But a key passage for Kenosis is Philippians 2 where Paul writes that Jesus ‘emptied himself’ which begs  the question, ‘Emptied himself of what?’ Kenosis answers, ‘Emptied himself of aspects of divinity incompatible with a fully and truly human existence.’ But that’s not what the passage says.

The phrase ‘He emptied himself’ is a Pauline metaphor. Jesus empties Himself, He does not empty Himself of anything. If you say he empties himself you would then need to ask “What does He empty himself into?” but he’s not emptying himself of anything. He empties himself. What the metaphor is referring to is where the camp usually divides, with some saying it refers to his death and others saying it refers to him taking the form of a servant. But he’s not emptying himself of anything.

So while it’s true that a tension exists as to how Jesus can be totally divine and yet totally human, Philippians doesn’t provide us with the answer of him emptying himself of aspects of his divinity.

in the next post we’ll look at the assumption that exists behind the kenotic view, and why it is fundamentally at odds with a Chalcedonian Christology.