Kenotic theology tries to explain how Christ could truly be a man and God at the same time. It focuses on the verse in Philippians 2 that says that Christ emptied himself to become man. (The greek word “kenosis” means empty, hence kenotic theology). Kenotic theologians claim this means in some sense Christ gave up his divine attributes so that he could truly be a man. When it first arose in the 19th century, it led its followers to deny that Christ was truly God and was discredited. Now is it arising again among some evangelical scholars who claim they are trying to defend the humanity of Christ. Here is my response to an article I read promoting kenotic theology.
The problem with kenotic theologians is that they are unhappy with mystery. The Bible teaches Jesus is man and thus he does not know the date of his 2nd Coming. The Bible teaches Jesus is God and thus he is able to know things about the Samaritan woman that he shouldn’t know as a mere mortal. How do these two things go together? I don’t know. Theologians don’t know. The Bible doesn’t tell us. It is why the incarnation is a miracle that is beyond human understanding. He is God and man in one person. When he evidences mortal attributes, his humanity is being manifest. When he shows forth superhuman power, his divinity is displayed. Beyond that, this mystery cannot be explained and all attempts to do so will lead to theological error, either denying Chirst’s deity or humanity. Kenotic theologians are too caught up in Enlightenment rationalism that demands all mysteries bow before human reason. Such thinking destroys the glory of the incarnation which is a miracle that is meant to make us bow down in humble worship before that which is beyond our intellect.
My brothers who promote this theology say they are just protecting the humanity of Christ for how could he truly sympathize with us if he had his divine nature to rely on. I do not pretend to know how to answer that question. I just know the Scripture tells me he does sympathize with me having experienced my weaknesses and my suffering and I take the greatest comfort that God my Savior became a human for me. I don’t have to explain away his deity to know this is true. I rejoice in the mystery in that he is fully God and fully man.
When statements are made in defense of kenotic theology that we must adopt it because clearly there was a change in the divine nature when the incarnation took place, we know we have strayed into serious error because Scripture clearly teaches God does not change. We must be careful not to try and be more clever than divine revelation. We must humbly admit that we cannot understand everything. Behold the mystery of the incarnation. When you try to explain it, you destroy it.
I would add that the Philippians 2 passage that speaks of Christ emptying himself is clearly speaking about his status and glory, not his being or attributes. The pastoral applications Paul makes proves this. He is calling his church to follow Christ’s example in humbling themselves so they may serve one another. He is not asking them to ontologically become less than human or to give up human attributes, but to adopt the attitude of Christ when he took on the status of a servant. To make the passage about philosophy and metaphysics is to undermine the ethical punch that Paul intended for it to have. He wasn’t asking them to get lost in intellectually pondering the mystery of divine being, but to be motivated to serve by the mystery of divine love.