Kenotic Theology


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Theodor H Gaster has pointed out two basic movements in rituals. The first he refers to as rituals of Kenosis, or emptying; the other, as rituals of Plerosis, or filling. Rituals of Kenosis portray the evacuating of the meaning of time as it approaches the end of a cycle. The wearing down of time at this moment produces noxious and defiling effects, and thus the appropriate response is an ascetic form of behavior accompanied with austerities. In the rituals of Plerosis, the filling of time or the beginning again of the new time, dramas of excess and overabundance of power are portrayed in the rituals. Specific dramatic roles in these rituals imitate the power of deities in bringing about the renewal of the time of the cosmos.

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Kenosis, Kenotic Theology

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"Kenosis" is a Greek term taken from html. 2:7, where Christ is spoken of as having "emptied himself" (RSV) and taken human form. There has been much discussion about this entire crucial passage (2:6 - 11), and several interpretations exist today. Kenotic theology is a theology that focuses on the person of Christ in terms of some form of self - limitation by the preexistent Son in his becoming man. Kenotic theology at the theoretical level is a way of conceiving of the incarnation that is relatively new in the history of reflection on the person of Christ. Some see this form of thought about Christ as the most recent advance in Christology; others see it as a blind alley.


Kenotic theology can be said to have begun as a serious form of reflection on Christology in the works of Gottfried Thomasius (1802 - 75), a German Lutheran theologian. In general kenotic theology was formulated in the light of three crucial concerns.

The primary concern was to find a way of understanding the person of Christ that allowed his full humanity to be adequately expressed. Biblical studies had given the church an intensified awareness that Christianity began in the earliest encounters with the man Jesus. Critical scholarship was "recapturing" him in the light of his environment. It was becoming more sensitive to the limitations of that "prescientific" era and was seeing more clearly the Synoptic portrait of the human personality of the man Jesus. All this conspired to force upon theologians the need to affirm in new ways that Christ was truly man. He grew, he hungered, he learned, he appropriated his culture, and he exhibited its limitations.

All this must be said about Christ himself, not merely about some abstract appendage called humanity "assumed" by God the Son.

A second, equally important concern was to affirm that God truly was in Christ. The creeds are correct: very God, very man. The problem is how this can be said without turning Christ into an aberration. If to be human is to learn, grow, etc., and to be God is to be omniscient, then how can we speak of one person? Must he not have had "two heads"?

The third concern stems in part from the first. The age was learning to think in terms of the categories of psychology. Consciousness was a central category. If at our "center" is our consciousness, and if Jesus was both omniscient God and limited man, then he had two centers and was thus fundamentally not one of us. Christology was becoming inconceivable for some.

The converging of these concerns led to kenotic theologies in a variety of forms. All shared a need to affirm Jesus' real, limited humanity and limited consciousness along with the affirmation that he is very God and very man. The varying forms of the theory of divine self - limitation were the way this was attempted.

All forms of classical orthodoxy either explicitly reject or reject in principle kenotic theology. This is because God must be affirmed to be changeless; any concept of the incarnation that would imply change would mean that God would cease to be God.


These concerns by no means force a uniformity of formulations; in fact, there are many different possibilities under the general category "kenotic theology." There is a variety of possibilities for a Christology in terms of the idea of a preincarnate self - limitation by God the Son. There are two broad categories for understanding kenotic theories. One concerns the relation of the kenotic theory to traditional orthodox formulas. A kenotic theory can have the function of being supportive modification of a traditional formula or it can be presented as an alternative. This is key difference between the otherwise quite similar presentations given by Anglican Charles Gore in his Bampton Lectures, The Incarnation of the Son of God (1891), and Congregationalist P T Forsyth in his Person and Place of Jesus Christ (1909).

Both writers clearly affirm a real commitment to an understanding of Christ as God and man, yet Gore's kenotic proposal functions to reinforce his consistent and articulate defense of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. Forsyth sees his theory as a biblical alternative to a static, Greek, outmoded formula found in the Chalcedonian Definition. Both Gore and Forsyth are altogether clear on their vision of Jesus' humanity, his growth, and limitations as part of the meaning of his identity.

A second distinction within kenotic theories concerns the place of the concept within the larger understanding of God's being and relation to the world. The work of A E Garvie in Studies in the Inner Life of Jesus (1907) shows the influence of a conservative form of Hegelian speculation on the nature of the Trinity. Here there is seen to be a movement or dialectic within God between fullness (Father) and self - limitation / expression (Son) that finds its historic expression in the incarnation kenotically understood.

Thus kenotic theology is not intended to be an ad hoc device for making sense of the Christ event; rather the Christ event is the historic expression of the eternal dialectic within the Triune God. Others also see the relation of God as Creator to creation as a form of self - limitation, thus providing genuine human freedom and the broad context for the more specific instance of divine self - limitation in Jesus Christ. The contrast to these more speculative forms of kenotic theology would naturally be those forms which focus more specifically on the incarnation as the exclusive act of divine self - limitation for our salvation.

At least two broad areas of distinction can be made in understanding the potential range of kenotic theories. First is the crucial distinction on the relation of a proposed kenotic theology to the history of Christology. Is the theory to be seen as an alternative to existing dogma (Forsyth, Mackintosh) or a reinforcing modification (Garvie, Weston)? Secondly, is a kenotic theology to be seen in its uniqueness as the act of divine self - limitation (Forsyth), or is it to be seen as either the culminating historical instance of the Trinitarian dialectic (Garvie) and / or the kenotic relation of God to creation in general?


Kenotic theology as formulated in Germany (1860 - 80) or in England (1890 - 1910) was clearly not without challenge. Indeed, many believe that the criticisms evoked have proven fatal.

A persistent criticism has been that kenotic theology is not biblical. If one were to hold some sort of development theory about the emergence of NT Christology, as do R Bultmann, J Knox, R H Fuller, e.g., then the most that could be said would be that kenotic theology could at best reflect one of the emerging models. If one holds to the Christological unity of the NT, as do kenotic theorists in general, then the question is more pointed. What advocates of kenotic theology would uniformly contend is that as an interpretative scheme their understanding allows one to see Jesus Christ as a real, growing, limited man without creating a sense that God is not somehow deeply involved in exactly this man.

It is not a question of the interpretation of html. 2, but a question of how one sees God and man in Jesus Christ. Did Christ know or not know the time of the end (Mark 13:32)? Orthodoxy said he must know, he is the presence of the omniscient God; however, for some reason he has chosen not to reveal this knowledge. Kenotic theorists insist that the text says what it says. He limited himself to his human and real development; he was genuinely dependent on his Father; he did not know. The problem of who is biblical cuts more than one way.

A second criticism clearly must focus on the fundamental credibility of the concept of a divine self - limitation. We must be clear here. Theology has always countenanced a divine concealment for pedagogical purposes in Christ. He concealed his divine radiance and became tangible so as to meet us in our darkened, fallen world on our terms (Augustine). Kenotic theology goes a crucial step beyond this; in the incarnation, however conceived, there was a preincarnate act of limitation, whether it be a "laying aside" (Gore) or a "concentration" (Forsyth). It is something like whether or not a missionary were to take his two - way radio (and thus his link to his support system) with him into the jungle. How can Jesus Christ be God if we would simultaneously affirm that during the incarnate life he was not omniscient?

Following the lead of Thomasius, some argued that there are two kinds of attributes, internal (love, joy) and external (omnipotence, omnipresence, etc.). The eternal Son "set aside" the external attributes and revealed the internal. In him we see the love of Father - Son; in him we see God's "heart" made visible. A M Fairbairn carefully works this out in his pioneering work, The Place of Christ in Modern Theology (1895).

Others of a more speculative bent (e.g., Garvie) contend that self - limitation is in God in his "inner trinitarian" life. Thus what is revealed in Christ is not one act of self - limitation, but God the Son in his eternal self - limiting obedient relation to the Father. The incarnation is thus seen to be the revelation of the eternal relation of Father to Son and the saving love that would include others.

The third response focuses on the importance of goal or intention for God. If God can be said to have as his fundamental goal to bring lost children back to himself, then his omnipotence / omniscience is precisely that which achieves the goal. The greatest act of omnipotence can then be seen as the Son's becoming "poor" that we may become rich in him.

Omnipotence is reconsidered more in terms of the goal in view than as an abstract category. Forsyth worked with this idea at length; he called it the "moralizing of dogma", that is, the reshaping of our view of God from what he called static categories to dynamic ones reflecting God's saving purposes seen in Christ. Thus there were several ways those holding a kenotic theology would attempt to make the concept of self - limitation credible. Further, the challenge was reversed. How, it was asked, can one make sense of Jesus Christ as an omniscient being simultaneously living as a growing, learning, limited man without creating a "twoheaded" being? Is the union of natures conceivable without a divine self - limitation? Is not some form of docetism the only alternative? Did Jesus only look human?

The third criticism has focused on the supposed strength of kenotic theology, the consciousness of Jesus. Perhaps, it would be conceded, the person of the Incarnate is more of a unity, but have we not created a new duality between the preincarnate Son and the historical Jesus? Was there not an inconceivable loss (of knowledge) at Bethlehem? Further, if the Son simultaneously remained the transcendent Logos, is there not a radical, fatal discontinuity between the consciousness of the transcendent Logos and the earthly Jesus? It can be argued that at this point kenotic theology is most strained. However, the strain is fundamentally a relocation of the same strain orthodoxy faces when it attempts to affirm very God - very man in terms of the consciousness of the earthly Jesus.

The problem cuts both ways. For kenotic theology the tension is in the cleavage between the preexistent and incarnate Son. For orthodoxy the tension is as great as it attempts to comprehend in some measure how Jesus can be both the presence of the omniscient God and a limited, growing man.


Kenotic theology is in reality a variant but new form of orthodox, biblical faith. It has appeared in a variety of forms over the last century. It has been vigorously debated, and interest in it remains. From one angle it can be seen as an attempt to give conceptual substance to the great hymn of Charles Wesley that speaks in awe that the Son would "empty himself of all but love" and die for a fallen humanity. From another angle kenotic theology reprsents an attempt to give central place to Jesus' limited yet sinless humanity while affirming that the ultimate significance of that humanity was and is that here on earth God the eternal Son has come, truly come, to redeem.

S M Smith
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

C Welch, God and Incarnation in Mid Nineteenth Century German Theology; C Gore, Dissertations on Subjects Connected with the Incarnation; W I Walker, The Spirit and the Incarnation; F Weston, The One Christ; A B Bruce, The Humiliation of Christ; H E W Turner, Jesus the Christ; W Pannenberg, Jesus, God and Man.


Catholic Information

A term derived from the discussion as to the real meaning of Phil. 2:6 sqq.: "Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But emptied [ekenosen] himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as man."

Protestant opinions

The early Reformers, not satisfied with the teaching of Catholic theology on this point, professed to a deeper meaning in St. Paul's words, but Luther and a Melanchton failed in their speculations. John Brenz (d. 10 September, 1570), of Tübingen, maintained that as the Word assumed Christ's human nature, so His human nature not only possessed the Divinity, but also had the power to make use of the Divinity, though it freely abstained from such a use. Chemnitz differed from this view. He denied that Jesus Christ possessed the Divinity in such a way as to have a right to its use. The kenosis, or the exinanition, of His Divine attributes was, therefore, a free act of Christ, according to Brenz; it was the connatural consequence of the Incarnation, according to Chemnitz.

Among modern Protestants the following opinons have been the most prevalent:

Thomasius, Delitzcsh, and Kahnis regard the Incarnation as a self-emptying of the Divine manner of existence, as a self-limitation of the Word's omniscience, omnipresence, etc.

Gess, Reuss, and Godet contend that the Incarnation implies a real depotentation of the Word; the Word became, rather than assumed, the human soul of Christ.

Ebrard holds that the Divine properties in Christ appeared under the Kantian time-form appropriate to man; his kenosis consists in an exchange of the eternal for a time-form of existence.

Martensen and perhaps Hutton distingusih a double life of the Word: In the Man-Christ they see a kenosis and a real depotentiation of the Word; in the world the purely Divine Word carries the work of mediator and revealer. According to Godet, and probably also Gore, the Word in His kenosis strips Himself even of His immutable holiness, His infinite love, and His personal consciousness, so as to enter into a human development similar to ours.

Catholic teaching

According to Catholic theology, the abasement of the Word consists in the assumption of humanity and the simultaneous occultation of the Divinity. Christ's abasement is seen first in His subjecting Himself to the laws of human birth and growth and to the lowliness of fallen human nature. His likeness, in His abasement, to the fallen nature does not compromise the actual loss of justice and sanctity, but only the pains and penalties attached to the loss. These fall partly on the body, partly on the soul, and consist in liability to suffering from internal and external causes.

As to the body, Christ's dignity excludes some bodily pains and states. God's all-preserving power inhabiting the body of Jesus did not allow any corruption; it also prevented disease or the beginning of corruption. Christ's holiness was not compatible with decomposition after death, which is the image of the destroying power of sin. In fact, Christ had the right to be free from all bodily pain, and His human will had the power to remove or suspend the action of the causes of pain. But He freely subjected Himself to most of the pains resulting from bodily exertion and adverse external influences, e.g. fatigue, hunger, wounds, etc. As these pains had their sufficient reason in the nature of Christ's body, they were natural to Him.

Christ retained in Him also the weaknesses of the soul, the passions of His rational and sensitive appetites, but with the following restrictions: (a) Inordinate and sinful motions are incompatible with Christ's holiness. Only morally blameless passions and affections, e.g. fear, sadness, the share of the soul in the sufferings of the body, were compatible with His Divinity and His spiritual perfection. (b) The origin, intensity, and duration of even these emotions were subject to Christ's free choice. Besides, He could prevent their disturbing the actions of His soul and His peace of mind. To complete His abasement, Christ was subject to His Mother and St. Joseph, to the laws of the State and the positive laws of God; He shared the hardships and privations of the poor and the lowly. (See COMMUNICATO IDIOMATUM.)

Publication information Written by A.J. Maas. Transcribed by Richard R. Pettys, Jr.. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VIII. Published 1910. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


Lombard, lib. III, dist. XV-XVI, and Bonav., Scot., Biel on these chapters; St. Thomas, III, Q XIV-XV, and Salm., Suar., IV, xi-xii; Scheeben, Dogmatick, III, 266-74; Bruce, Humiliations of Christ, 113 sqq.; Gobe, Bampton Lectures (1891), 147; Hanna in The New York Review, I, 303 sqq.; the commentators on Phil., ii, 6, sqq.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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