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The Kenosis Theory


Tara Caudill

Stone-Campbell Journal Paper Competition Undergraduate Level

Kentucky Christian University

December 2014
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The Kenosis Theory (or modern Kenosis theory) is a theory that originated in the

19th century deriving primarily from the works of German Lutheran theologian Gottfried

Thomasius (1802-1875).1 The verses from which this theory stems from, Philippians 2:5-

11, state that Christ, when He came to earth to become a man, voluntarily relinquished

his divine qualities or attributes unique to being the Almighty in order to become a

human and dwell among man, as mentioned at the core of these verses in Philippians 2:6

& 7. It is interesting to note that the early Christian church had its own versions of the

"kenosis" problem that differs from the one of today; it had Monophysitism dating to the

5th century AD (which stated that Christ was one nature – God and man, man and God)

vs. "Two Natures" – Christ was both fully God and fully man (the Council of Chalcedon

AD 451).2 The passage of Philippians 2:6 and 7 (speculated by some to be an early

Christian hymn, its entirety being verses five through eleven) is an incredible passage that

gives readers a glimpse of the sacrifice made by Jesus to go from becoming the Word of

God to the Word in the flesh. In this study, the two meanings of the Greek word κενόω,

either literal or metaphorical, will be presented, as well as giving support for each

definition to show which is most likely the true meaning; knowing the definitions can

help answer the question, which meaning is more operative?

In the original language of the manuscripts (Koinè Greek), Philippians 2:6 – 7

reads as follows: “6. ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ,

7. ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφήv δούλου λαβών, ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος.”

In English, this translates to, “6 [Christ] who, though he was in the form of God, did not

1 (accessed 12/15/14)
2Ronald E. Heine, Classical Christian Doctrine: Introducing the Essentials of the Ancient Faith (Ada:
Baker Academic, 2013), p. 78-89
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regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the

form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”3 The word that is the famous focus of

this study is the word ἐκένωσεν, the root word being κενόω, which has two different


The first meaning is translated in a literal fashion to mean, “to empty”4 or “having

nothing, [being] empty-handed.”5 When translated in the literal sense, the verses in

question are presented in this way: “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not

regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a

bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.”6

The second meaning, the metaphorical, is translated to mean, “to make of no

effect”7 or “fruitless.”8 When translated in a metaphorical sense, these verses speak in a

different manner: “6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal

with God: 7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant,

and was made in the likeness of men.”9

After learning the two possible meanings for κενόω, the question arises, of what

did Christ empty Himself? Depending on which translation is considered the reader can

3 Philippians 2:6,7 NRSV

translation (accessed 12/16/14)
4 Peter T. O'Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians (The New International Greek Testament Commentary)
(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014), p. 216
5 George V. Wigram, The Analytical Greek Lexicon Of The New Testament: Every Word And Inflection Of
The Greek New Testament Arranged Alphabetically And With Grammatical Analyses. (Peabody, Mass.:
Hendrickson, 1983)
6, NASB translation
(accessed 12/17/14)
7 Peter T. O'Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians (The New International Greek Testament Commentary)
(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014), p. 216
8 Ibid p. 216
9, KJV translation (accessed 12/17/14)
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arrive at two separate answers, as well as two different understandings of the verses.

First, look at support for the literal meaning of κενόω: Christ “emptied” Himself.

Gerhard Kittel’s argument for a literal meaning from his book Theological

Dictionary of the New Testament is that “Sense b (the metaphorical meaning) ‘he negated

himself, deprived himself of his worth, denied himself’ is ruled out by the resultant weak

tautology of ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν (emptied himself).”10 To suggest that the metaphorical

meaning is not to be considered because of “weak repetition” is quite biased; repetition is

often used by writers to show the importance of a subject or to affirm an idea, something

that Paul (as a skilled evangelist inspired by the Holy Spirit) has done numerous times.

He also does so in the next chapter, Philippians 3. Here, Paul stresses the importance of

having no confidence in the flesh, repeating over and over that the things of this world

will get us nowhere closer to Christ. Is this repetition pointless and weak and not to be

considered? Of course not, Paul is confirming a message vigorously to his audience that

they must hear and understand, as any other teacher does with his or her students. This

view is argued against again on page six.

Ralph Martin, in his book A Hymn of Christ gives three possible answers when

coming to the question of different forms:

1. It’s the contention of those theologians who support

some aspect of the ‘Kenotic’ theory of the Incarnation that
it is the ‘form of God’ which was the pre-existent nature of
Christ which was surrendered at the Incarnation, as He
emptied Himself of this divine nature.”11

10 Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New
Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985), p. 661
11 Ralph P. Martin, A Hymn of Christ: Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Interpretation and in the Setting of
Early Christian Worship (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1997), p. 166
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While this statement seems to be good support for a literal meaning of κενόω in

this verse, there is one problem with this approach. This same word κενόω is also used

again by Paul in 1st Corinthians 1:17 which states, “For Christ did not send me to baptize,

but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not

be made void.”12 This same word in a similar Christian context, instead of indicating the

very cross that Christ hung on might become nothing in a literal sense, is used in the

metaphorical sense, to paraphrase, so that what deeds Christ accomplished on the cross

should not be for nothing. To attempt to make κενόω in this verse say that Paul preaches

instead of baptizes so that Christ’s cross would not become empty or no more in a

physical manner is unlikely to make any sort of sense theologically, just as many believe

the same about Christ emptying himself in a physical sense of divine qualities in

Philippians 2. That being said, this view of a literal κενόω or emptying does not seem to

be the likely answer for this Philippians 2 passage.

The second possible answer takes on the view of the word ἁρπαγμός in relation to

κενόω, which leans more towards the metaphorical meaning. Here ἁρπαγμός is best

defined as a “spoil, an object of eager desire, a prize.”13 Knowing the precise definition

gives a better clarification to translating and understanding the Kenosis theory. To

translate ἁρπαγμός as “robbery” or “seizing,” would give the impression that Christ’s

equality with God was not His to begin with. If equality with God was not His before the

Incarnation, He could not make Himself nothing and become a servant during and after

the Incarnation – if He was already lower than God, He would already have been in the

12, NASB translation, emphasis added (accessed 12/17/14)

13, NAS Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible with Hebrew-Aramaic
and Greek Dictionaries, Copyright 1981, 1998 by the Lockman Foundation (accessed 12/16/14)
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rank of servant hood, and would have been on a similar level as the angels in heaven.

Martin comments on the view of ἁρπαγμός, saying:

2. [The] view that ἁρπαγμός is to be taken as referring to

the prize which lay within the reach of the pre-existent Son
but which was not His actual possession in His eternal state
that has been mentioned earlier. In this reading of
ἁρπαγμός the equality was not His possession, but what He
received at His glorification… W. Warren chose to treat it
as the general ‘He poured out Himself’, teaching that He
didn’t ‘consider equality with God [something to hold
onto],’ but effected Himself and all thought of self and
poured out His fullness to enrich others.14

Following this view, Martin goes on to say that “this way of ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν

brings us to the possibility of treating the verb in a non-literal way.”15 This view seems

to make more sense; Christ is lowering himself below the Father in order to become a

servant. While the idea that equality with God was not His until He returned to the right

hand of God can be debated as well, that is no the focus here; this view demonstrates the

likelihood of κενόω being used as a metaphor as opposed to a literal translation of

Christ’s descending from heaven. Keep in mind that this is not Docetism; Christ was

fully human while on earth – before His crucifixion and after His resurrection. Kyle Butt

in his article, “Did Paul Write About Jesus as a Historical Person?”, he responds to a

book titled The Pagan Christ, by Tom Harpur in which Harpur argues that Christ is a

mythical figure. Kyle defends the fact that Christ is spoken of as a man of flesh as well,

even after his resurrection as he states, “Paul wrote to the Romans about ‘Jesus Christ our

Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh’ (Romans 1:3, emp.

added). The apostle further mentioned in 1 Timothy 6:13 that Jesus ‘witnessed the good

14 Ralph P. Martin, A Hymn of Christ: Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Interpretation and in the Setting of
Early Christian Worship (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1997), p. 169
15 Ibid p. 169
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confession before Pontius Pilate’ (emp. added).”16 Jesus did not exist in a static and

otherworldly state when He walked on earth – He was a man that experienced life in the

same manners of emotions and struggles as the people of His day and as we do.

The third and last view stems from another approach to ἁρπαγμός. Martin

explains this view in detail, stating that some who interpret ἁρπαγμός as His possession

(such as His state or status) which He willing departed from, and find ‘equality with God’

as a synonym for this possession, “the consequence follows that He was willing to forgo,

for the period and purpose of the Incarnation, the equality He had known for all

eternity.”17 In another source, J. B. Lightfoot elaborates on this point, saying:

Though He pre-existed in the form of God, yet He did not

look upon equality with God as a prize which must not slip
from His grasp, but He emptied Himself, divested Himself
(not of His divine nature, for this was impossible), but of
the glories, the prerogatives, of Deity.18

This explanation of a metaphorical translation of κενόω fits very nicely in

correlation with the nature of Christ in the Gospels, and makes more sense of His

humiliation at the Incarnation. Instead of suggesting He “made Himself not Himself,”

but that He made Himself nothing in comparison with His previous stature and took on

the form of a slave. Peter O’Brien comments on this view as well, saying that, “ἑαυτὸν

ἐκένωσεν has been interpreted metaphorically to refer to Christ making himself

powerless… which led to the real humiliation of his incarnation and death.”19 O’Brien

16 Butt, Kyle. “Did Paul Write About Jesus as a Historical Person?” (accessed 12/17/14)
17 Ibid p. 166
18 J. B. Lightfoot, Philippians (Crossway Classic Commentaries) (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1994),
p. 111-112
19 Peter T. O'Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians (The New International Greek Testament Commentary)
(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014), p. 216
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goes on to explain the importance of other words in relation to ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν, saying

that it is better defined when followed by two particle phrases, “μορφὴν δούλου λαβών

(‘taking the form of a slave’) and ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος (being found in

human form),” precisely the words λαβών and γενόμενος, are coincident with the finite

verb ἐκένωσεν; they describe the manner in which Christ emptied Himself.20 Next, he


μορφὴ is an important noun in this verse as well; “Christ

didn’t take the appearance and disguise himself; he became
a slave; adopting the nature and characteristics of one.”21

To continue, some explaining what μορφή means before the next point is

presented may be necessary. When translated into English, μορφή means, “form.” This

is where English gets its word “morph,” which means to change from one form to

another. In this context, the μορφή of God, which is Spirit, and the μορφή of a slave (or

δούλου, which can also mean servant), which is in the flesh.

Going back to the grammar, specifically speaking in terms of the grammatical

grounds of this passage, it is very unlikely, if not impossible, for ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ (in the

form of God) to be the direct object of ἐκένωσεν because the former is separated from the

verb by ἀλλὰ. Therefore, following this point, verses six and seven ‘cannot mean that the

pre-existent Christ emptied Himself of the μορφῇ θεοῦ (form of God) and instead took

the μορφὴ δούλου (form of a slave). According to O’Brien, W. Michaelis “has

perceptively noted, if Paul had meant this he would have written ἑαυτὸν κενώσας...

ἔλαβεν, which means, ‘Self emptying… [he] took on.’ ‘The implication is not that

20 Ibid p. 217
21 Ibid p. 218
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Christ, by becoming incarnate, exchanged the form of God for the form of a slave, but

that he manifested the form of God in the form of a slave.’”22 This is precisely the

translation that makes the most sense for this hymn and for the Kenosis theory; not that

Christ dismissed His nature when He became a man, but kept and “manifested” His

divinity into flesh, disregarding his stature as LORD; this view is also supported by V.

Taylor (from whom Martin quotes above).23 After much research and meditation on the

aspects of this theory, I have found it to be a plausible and interesting theory, to say the


Reflecting on what has been discussed, if one understands these verses with the

literal meaning of κενόω, it speaks to the reader saying that Christ emptied Himself or

poured out his very nature in order to make Himself a servant in human form, but when

we examine the same word used by Paul when he speaks of his preaching in 1st

Corinthians, which is evidently is being used figuratively, it appears foolish to suggest

that κενόω in the Philippians passage is being used in a literal way (this is not to suggest

that this word can only be used metaphorically); Christ cannot rid Himself of Himself to

become a slave, but instead he became a servant despite his heavenly stature. If one

understands these verses with the metaphorical meaning of κενόω, it carries a more

reasonable message, saying that Christ made Himself nothing and lowered Himself from

His status as the Almighty – who deserves to be served, and instead put the very form of

God into the form of a slave – serving those He came to save by becoming obedient even

to death on a cross.

22 Peter T. O'Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians (The New International Greek Testament Commentary)
(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014), p. 218
23 V Taylor, The Person of Christ in New Testament Teaching (London, Eng.: Macdonald & Co, 1963), p.
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Works Cited

"Bible Gateway Passage: Philippians 2 - New International Version." Bible Gateway.

Accessed December 17, 2014. 2&version=NRSV.

"Bible Gateway Passage: Philippians 2 - New International Version." Bible Gateway.

Accessed December 17, 2014. 2&version=NRSV.

Brien, Peter Thomas. The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary On the Greek Text.
Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991. 216.

Butt, Kyle. "Did Paul Write About Jesus as a Historical Person?" Apologetics Press.
January 1, 2010. Accessed December 17, 2014.

Heine, Ronald E. Classical Christian Doctrine: Introducing The Essentials Of The

Ancient Faith. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2013. 78-89.

"Kenotic Theology." Kenotic Theology. Accessed December 5, 2014. http://mb-

Kittel, Gerhard, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Theological Dictionary of

the New Testament. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
Company, 1985. 661.

Lightfoot, Joseph Barber. Philippians. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1994. 111-112.

Martin, Ralph. "His Incarnation (Verse 7a, B)." A Hymn Of Christ: Philippians 2:5-11 In
Recent Interpretation & In The Setting Of Early Christian Worship.
Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1997. 166-167, 169.

"Philippians 2 KJV." Philippians 2 KJV. January 1, 2004. Accessed December 16, 2014.

Taylor, Vincent. The Person Of Christ In New Testament Teaching. London, England:
Macdonald &, 1959. 77.

Wigram, George V. The Analytical Greek Lexicon Of The New Testament: Every Word
And Inflection Of The Greek New Testament Arranged Alphabetically And With
Grammatical Analyses. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1983.