Grace Journal 8.2 (Spring, 1967) 3-13.
Copyright © 1967 by Grace Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
DOCTRINE OF THE KENOSIS IN PHILIPPIANS 2:5-8
ALVA J. McCLAIN
Grace Theological Seminary
This passage in the Philippian Epistle has been so closely connected with certain
problems of Christology that any discussion of it will be the more complete if prefaced
by a brief historical survey in this particular field of Christian doctrine. Such a survey
will serve to show the theological importance of the passage, why the attention of
Christologists from the first was drawn to it inevitably, and how speculations regarding
the Person of Christ have finally culminated in several theories, related in principle,
which receive their name from a Greek word in the passage, and are based to a greater or
less extent upon it.
The dreariest, most barren pages of church history deal with that period of
Christological controversy which followed the Nicene Council. Having successfully
repelled the Arian assault, the attention of the church had logically shifted to another
problem --how to reconcile proper Deity and true humanity in the Person of the historic
Saviour, Jesus Christ. Over this question discussion ran the gamut of conceivable
opinion. Men, according to their bias, became Apollinarians, Nestorians, Eutychians,
Monophysites, Monothelites, Adoptionists, and Niobites, until at last they all but
lost themselves in subtle distinctions and, bewildered by the dust of battle, actually
"fought against their own side." In the heat of conflict men not only lost their way,
but also lost their tempers, and applied to one another certain offensive and unmusical
epithets such as "Phthartolatrae," "Aktistetes," "Aphthartodocetics," and "Ktistolators."
It was an unhappy age, of which Dr. Bruce appropriately speaks as "the era of
And yet through all this strife, much of which seems so petty to the modern
mind, there runs a sincerity of purpose that cannot be ridiculed. Men were bent upon
a laudable under
The above article first appeared in The Biblical Review Quarterly, October, 1928. Its
editor, Robert M. Kurtz commented as follows: "It is therefore with considerable
satisfaction that we present Professor McClain's paper, "The Doctrine of the Kenosis
in Philippians 2:5-8. Its acumen and force have moved a competent theologian to pronounce
this discussion unsurpassed by anything extant upon the subject. After noticing briefly
the early shifting of emphasis as between our Lord's Deity and His humanity, and the later
development of various kenotic theories, the paper takes up the theme proper. Professor
McClain's reasoning is so sound and his style so lucid that no analysis here could add to
his able treatment. Readers who have found the general arguments about the kenosis
inconclusive, if not confusing, may well feel indebted to the writer of this able piece
of doctrinal exposition.
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taking--the rationalization of their faith. Primarily, therefore, the responsibility for these
centuries of theological conflict may be laid upon the activity of the human mind in its
passion for explanation. The pity was that men in their zeal for rationalization often lost
sight of the historic facts of faith because they were willing to surrender what. they could
not immediately rationalize. Furthermore, yielding overmuch to the philosophic tendency
of the age, they sought a metaphysical rather than a moral rationale for the Incarnation.
As a result, the humanity of Christ was sadly neglected, and by some was reduced to a
bare metaphysical shell in order to fit certain a priori notions of what Deity could or
could riot do.
It was left for the Reformation, and particularly for tlle leaders of the Reformed
Church, to recall the minds of men once again to the real humanity of our Lord. To these
men the Christ of faith was the Saviour of the Gospels; one who had lived, suffered, and
died; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, tempted in all points like as we are; a
true Saviour, who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmity. Yet, with all this insistence
upon the real humanity of Jesus, the Reformers yield nothing to the Socinian tendencies of
their day. If to them He is the man Christ Jesus, " He is also nothing less than "God overall
blessed forever." The veil of inadequate and mystifying Christological solutions is stripped
away, and men are called back to the more simple faith of the early church. But this
return to the primitive faith is also, a return to the old problem which had exercised the
Fathers, but was never solved by them: How can we reconcile true Deity and real
humanity in the historic Jesus?
It maybe said with assurance that the Reformed theologians did not solve this
problem. Their chief contribution to a Biblical Christology was a determined insistence
upon both the humanity and Deity of our Lord, and also a refusal to entertain as valid
any view of His Person which failed to pay due regard to all the facts as set forth In the
New Testament sources and confirmed by their own personal experience. This position
was of inestimable value to the Christian church, not in forbidding further attempts to
formulate a rational Christology, but in providing a sure foundation upon which men
If prior to the Reformation the general tendency was to sacrifice the humanity of
Jesus in the interest of certain conceptions of Deity, we may say that since the Reformation
there has been a tendency in an opposite direction. Especially has this been true during the
last seventy-five years, a period characterized by great critical activity.. Like the blind man
of the Fourth Gospel, this historical criticism began with "the man that is called Jesus,"
next advanced to the point of recognizing Him as "a prophet, " and finally, in the case
of some critics at least, fell down and worshiped Him.
Those who recognized Him as divine solved the inevitable Christological problem by
having recourse to some form of kenosis theory. In becoming man the Logos "emptied
himself" in some respect. Thus, the divinity was made to yield, or rather was adjusted,
to the humanity in adopting this principle of a kenosis as a point of departure in attempted
explanation of Christ's Person, men were on safe and Biblical ground, for the New Testament
writings undoutededly teach a kenosis of some kind in their doctrine of the Incarnation.
Unfortunately, in the application of this valid principle, men failed to keep their eyes
steadfastly upon the historic Person; the kenosis idea became a tool of theological bias,
and was used for the construction of strange kenotic Christs bearing but a poor and partial
resemblance to the Christ of the Gospel records.
THE DOCTRINE OF THE KENOSIS IN PHILIPPIANS 2:5 -8 5
This was the era of the modern kenotic theories, during which, as might be
expected, searching and critical examination was given to every New Testament
passage that could possibly be utilized in their support. The Philippian passage
naturally received most attention, being in fact the exegetical cornerstone of the
whole kenosis idea. Certain extremists it is true, simply ignored it in the
construction of their Christological schemes; but all those who felt bound in
any real sense to the New Testament records rightly understood that no
formula could be regarded as valid which failed to gain the support of this
important text. One having but a superficial acquaintence with the many different
kenotic theories is not surprised, therefore, to find some diversity of opinion
among interpreters. He will be scarcely prepared, however, for the actual situation.
Nothing beyond a cursory review of the astonishingly numerous interpretations of
this Philippian passage is enough, as someone has suggested, to aff1ict the student with
"intellectual paralysis. This is especially the case m regard to that section (v. 7) which
speaks of the self emptying", or kenosis, of Christ. Some make of this a mere skenosis;
Deity was veiled, but was limited in no important or essential respect. Others think the
self-limitation was real, though very inconsiderable. A third view holds that the Logos,
in becoming man, retained full possession of His divine attributes, and that the kenosis
consisted in His acting as if He did not possess them. Another school supposes that
He actually gave up certain of his attributes, ones designated by theologians as relative,
such as omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. Still others go farther in asserting
that He gave up all the divine attributes, so that Deity was stripped to a bare essence.
Finally, there are those who, excluding from the passage all reference to a pre-existent
state, regard the kenosis as having taken place wholly within the earthly life of the
man Christ Jesus.
Such a variety of interpretations might tend to discourage any further attempt
were it not for one thing, namely, a hopeful conviction that much of this variety may
have been caused by different theological viewpoints which interpreters brought with
them to the passage. This is not to say, that we must begin with no assumptions. I
feel quite sure that certain regulative presuppositions are essential to any worthwhile
exposition of our Lord's kenosis as set forth in this Philippian text. Some of these
presuppositions I shall now attempt to state.
1. No interpretation can be accepted as valid which departs in any respect
from the historic Person of the Gospel records. 2. Due consideration should be given
to the whole stream of Biblical testimony which bears on the Person of Christ.
If the Philippian text is worthy of attention, then other texts may not be excluded.
3. The interpreter will logically expect to receive his surest guidance from the writer
of the passage, the Apostle Paul himself. 4. It is supremely important that the
purpose and spirit of the passage with its context be kept constantly in mind. The
writer of this passage is not composing a theological treatise; he is pleading with his
Philippian converts for a life of love and self-forgetfulness--"not looking each of you
to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others." And as a powerful
incentive to this holy end he holds up before their eyes the sublime Self-forgetfulness
of the Son of Man, who on their behalf had "emptied himself, taking the form of a
servant." 5. If metaphysical difficulties arise, they must yield to the moral requirements
of the Incarnation. We ought to be, I think, well past that stage of human thought
when such difficulties compelled men to choose between an "Absolute" who could
not empty Himself, and a mere creature who had little or nothing of
6 GRACE JOURNAL
which he might empty himself. Better a thousand times give up our conception of an
absolute God than admit He is incapable of any real "moral heroism. " For that matter,
what God can or cannot do is a question to be settled by what we have good reason to
believe that He has done. Therefore, no supposed metaphysical problems should be
permitted to reduce the doctrine of our Lord's kenosis to the point where it becomes a
mere shadowy, docetic semblance.
The passage appears in the American Standard Version as follows: "Have this
mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, existing in the form of God, counted
not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself,
taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in
fashion as a man, he humbled himsself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea,
the death of the cross."
The first question concerns the phrase, "existing in the form of God." Does
it refer to a pre-existent state of Christ? To the casual reader such a reference seems
perfectly natural, but some have denied it, affirming that the reference is limited to
the earthly state of Christ. This was the position taken by certain interpreters,
although for vastly different reasons; by some of them to vindicate their doctrine
of an omnipresent body; by others to avoid a possible testimony for the Saviour's
Deity. Various arguments were advanced in support of this interpretation.
It was said that the subject of the entire passage is named "Christ Jesus,"
and that, even granting a pre-existent state, such a title would be inappropriate to
designate the Logos prior to His Incarnation. To me this objection has little weight.
Even common usage is against it no one thinks it inaccurate, for instance, to speak
of the "childhood of President Coolidge,” though, strictly speaking, President
Coolidge had no childhood. And the objection fails utterly when we find the Apostle
Pail applying the historical Name to the Son of God in other passages where
the reference to His pre-existent state is unmistakable. (Cf. Heb. and
I Cor. 10:4 "the rock was Christ.”)
Again, it has been argued that a disquisition upon the pre -existence of Christ
is not within the scope of the Apostle's purpose, that he is interested only in setting
before his converts an example of unselfishness and true humility. To this we can
heartily agree, insisting at the same time, however, that this very purpose of the
writer is a strong argument for the reference to a pre-existent state. What an example
to set before self-seeking Christians--the eternal Son stooping from Heaven to
earth on behalf of men! Certainly, assuming that Paul believed in a pre -existent
state, it would be hard to explain his failure to employ the idea in a passage like
this one. As to the rather shallow objection that such an example would be beyond
the power of men to imitate, we may answer that this is to miss the spirit of the
passage altogether. The Apostle is not asking for any mechanical imitation of the
precise act in which our Lord “emptied himself," whatever that act may have involved.
He is pleading that men shall have in them "the mind" which was in Christ Jesus,
and which impelled Him so to act as the passage describes, in the interest of others.
Moreover, to exclude the idea of pre -existence from the passage is to
render obscure its meaning.
The early Christian church was familiar with this idea, and a reference to
it in connection with the act of Incarnation would need no explanation. It was
part of the common faith. But
THE DOCTRINE OF THE KENCBIS IN PHILIPPIANS 2:5-8 7
eliminate this idea, and make the "self-emptying" something that took place entirely
within the earthly life of Christ, at once the plea of the Apostle becomes vague and
unintelligible. To what particular act in His earthly life could the language of verses
6-7 be applied with any measure of certainty beyond mere guess -work? And why
is there no hint or clue to guide the reader in fixing upon it? True, His whole life
was characterized by a constant and gracious self-forgetfulness," but the aorist
tense here (ekenosen) seems to favor a definite act, once for all, and not simply
a habit of living. The conclusion, to me, is compelling: The Apostle speaks of
the one act which needed no explanation to the Philippian Christians, that
sublime and voluntary act of Incarnation wherein the "Word became flesh and
tabernacled among us" in servant-form. The high background of this act is set
forth in the phrase, "existing in the form of God," a phrase which not only
refers to a pre-existent state, but also has somewhat to say regarding its character.
This pre-existent state is characterized as "in the form of God". (en morphe
theou). The general meaning of morphe is external appearance, that form by which
a person or thing strikes the vision. Our Engish word "form" scarcely expresses
its full significance. Quite often we use this term to indicate the very opposite
of reality, saying of something, that it is only a form, by which we mean that
the external appearance of the thing is misleading and does not truly represent
the inner substance or character. Thus, some have argued, Christ was a form
of God; He was God-like, but not God. The word morphe seems to strike
deeper than this. Lightfoot, Trench, Bengel, and others argue convincingly,
against a number who think other that the morphe-form is something
intrinsic and essential as opposed to the schema-form Which is merely
outward and more or less accidental. Following this idea S. G. Green, in
his defines morphe as the form which is “indicative of the interior nature."
It is indeed external form, that which strikes the eye, but as such it
accurately represents the underlying nature from which it springs.
If this be the significance of the term, then to say that Christ Jesus
was "existing in the form of God" is to affirm that He was very God
manifesting Himself in some external form through which He could be known,
probably to the inhabitants of Heaven, for what He truly was. This
meaning of morphe in verse 6 is further confirmed by its usage rn verse. 7
where we are told that Christ took the "form of a servant." Are we to
understand from this assertion that He became a servant only in external
appearance, and not in fact? Very few would be willing to accept such a
representation; certainly none of those who wish to limit the word in
verse 6 to mere external form. They have insisted more than once upon
what we gladly accept, that the Saviour was true man and in all respects
a true servant of God on behalf of men. But if the phrase, "form of a
servant," can be taken to indicate a true servanthood, surely no one
may consistently forbid us to find true Deity in the phrase, "form of God. "
Returning now to the general meaning of the word morphe, an
external form which strikes the vision, let us ask this question, Does the
invisible God possess such a form? Are we to take the meaning
literally, or is the reference only to those divine attributes in the exercise
of which intelligent beings may know that God is God? The latter idea
is undoubtedly present, and is the important one, as I shall try to show
below under a discussion of verse 7, but I do not believe that the more
literal meaning should be excluded. "No man hath seen God at any time."
True, yet we read that "Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and
seventy of the elders of
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"went up into the mountain, and "they saw the God of Israel." And we have the cry of the
prophet Isaiah, "Woe is me. ..for mine eyes have seen the King, Jehovah of hosts."
Whom and what did these men see? I am inclined to believe they saw the Son "existing
in the form of God," that form which strikes the vision and is at the same time no mere
eidos, or superficial resemblance, but which is rather truly indicative of God's inner
nature and invisible substance.
The Apostle now proceeds to set before his Philippian converts the mind of Him
who was originally existing in the form of God. This mind is revealed in two sublime
self-renunciatory acts, the one described as a kenosis, the other as a tapeinosis. In the
former He "emptied himself, "stooping from God to humanity; in the latter He "humbled
himself," stooping from humanity to death. The kenosis is further exhibited from two
distinct viewpoints: First, from the pre-existent state of Christ--"He counted not the being
on an equality with God a thing to be grasped"; and second, from His earthly state –
"taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. "
The phrase, "being on an equality with God," is exegetical and explanatory of
the phrase, "existing in the form of God." The only question is, whether these two
phrases are exactly equivalent, or whether the former adds to the latter the important
idea of actual historical manifestation. This second interpretation is very suggestive
and is not lacking in considerations which support it, but I prefer the first as more in
harmony with the entire viewpoint of this article. In the mind of the writer, then, to
exist "in the form of God" is to be "equal with God,” whatever else may be in the latter
phrase. Absolute equality with God was the possession of Jesus in His pre-incarnate
state. But, when the need arose in the world for a Saviour, He not regard His being equal
with God "a thing to be grasped" as a robber might grasp an object not his own. This
"equality" with God was so surely and incontestably Christ's own possession that He
could with "royal un-anxiety," lay it aside for a season for our sakes, being fully assured
that it would return to Him once He had accomplished our redemption. In all this there
is a blessed contrast between the mind of the Son and the mind of the great adversary
of our souls. The latter once counted the being on an equality with God a thing to be
grasped as a robber grasps at that which is not his own. Being in the form of a servant,
this "son of the morning" said in his heart, "I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my
throne above the stars of God. . . , I will make myself like the Most High." But the
only begotten Son, "existing" in the form of God" and possessing full "equality with
God," counted all this not a thing to be grasped, "but emptied himself, taking the form
of a servant, being made in the likeness of men.”
Here we have the positive side of the kenosis. There are not three steps, as the
Authorized Version seems to indicate, but only one step, in which the Logos "emptied
himself. This self-emptying act is further qualified by two participial phrases. The
first exhibits the great ethical end of the kenosis: Christ emptied Himself to become a
servant, the Servant of Jehovah. He therefore takes servant-form. But there are various
servant-forms; angels are douloi theou. So the second clause specifies the nature of His
servant-form: He took not on Him the nature of angels, but was made lower than the
angels, "becoming in the likeness of men" (en homoiomati anthropon genomenos).
Such in general was the kenosis of our Lord, and we may now enquire whether
it be possible to define more specifically its content. Of what primarily did the
Son of God empty Himself
THE DOCTRINE OF THE KENOSIS IN PHILIPPIANS 2:5-8 9
when He entered upon His earthly history? The passage before us does not
supply the details needed for a satisfactory answer. All it affirms is that
Christ Jesus was originally existing in “the form of God, ff and that at a certain
point in time He emptied Himself, taking "the form of a servant.” Of His
existence in servant-form we know somewhat, having the Gospel records to
guide us. Regarding His existence in God-form our knowledge is more limited.
If we could fix upon the exact significance of this phrase, "in the form of God,
the problem would be solved, because in the kenosis this "form" was exchanged
to be in the form of a servant. If we knew all that it meant to be in the form of God,
we would then know what our Lord gave up in order to take the form of a servant.
Everything in fact depends upon how we define the "form of God." I have already
discussed to a limited extent the possible meaning of this phrase, and shall attempt
now to investigate it more exhaustively.
In the first place, the form of God must not be identified with the essential
nature of God. Many of the Fathers did so identify them, probably out of a desire to
gain this Philippian passage as a witness to the Deity of Christ. The motive was
praiseworthy, but in permitting it to sway their exegetical judgment they got into a
Christological dilemma from which they were unable to extricate themselves without
either admitting that God could cease to be God, or on the other explaining away the
reality of the kenosis. In the main, as we might expect, they chose the latter way out.
The form of God in this passage is not the nature of God. God-form certainly presupposes
a God-nature, but is not essential to it. Verse 7 draws a similar distinction on the
human side of the kenosis; there is here a servant-form and also a human -nature. The
nature is a necessary condition of the form, but the form is not essential to the nature.
A man may cease to be a servant, but he cannot cease to be a man. Likewise, Deity may
change form, but not nature.
I have suggested above that this “form of God" may include a reference to some
literal external appearance, but doubtless the more important reference is to the divine
attributes. For it is through the exercise or function of these that, from an external
viewpoint, God appears most truly as God. In this functioning we find, in the deepest
sense, the morphe of God. The Logos, then, in putting off this form, must have
experienced to some degree a limitation as to His exercise of the divine attributes. The
question is, What was the nature and extent of this limitation? He could not, as some
suggest, have actually surrendered the divine attributes, they are functions potential In
the very nature of God. Granted that the active functioning might cease for a time, still
the potentiality remains. To suggest that this might also be given up is to say that God
may cease to be God.
But such an idea is repugnant to reason, and surely cannot be discovered in the
Scriptures. On the contrary, our Lord during the days of His flesh very definitely asserts
His possession of divine power when, referring to the laying down of His life, He declares,
"I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again." It will not do, either, to
say, as some others have said, that the Logos gave up the use of the divine attributes
during the period of His earthly life, though if interpreted rightly this statement might be
accepted as a true account. It is better to say with Dr. Strong that Christ gave up the
independent use of His divine attributes. This leaves room for all those exhibitions of
divine power and knowledge which appear during His earthly ministry, and at the same
time modifies in no essential respect the doctrine of a real kenosis.
10 GRACE JOURNAL
We may say; then, that the eternal Son, existing in the form of God—robed
with the glory of Deity in its external manifestation, possessing and exercising all
the incommunicable functions of the true God --counted not this being on an equality
with God a thing to be grasped but with loving condescension emptied Himself,
taking servant-form; and as a result of this one act His whole earthly life became
the life of a bond-servant, in which he does nothing, speaks nothing, knows nothing
by Himself; but all is under the power and direction of the Father through the Holy
Spirit. In this sense, during His earthly sojourn, the "external glory" was utterly laid
aside. "He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him
not.” But there was another, an ~E-glory; and this glory, of which the external glory
had been indicative, was still present, though veiled by the servant-form. He did not- -
it is not too much to say that He could not--empty Himself of this. And to those who
came to know Him because their eyes were enlightened by the Spirit, His blessed
inner glory became apparent in spite of the veil of flesh, so that they could witness
that, "The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we behold his glory, glory
as of the only begotten from the Father) full of grace and truth.”
The two phrases, "in the likeness of men" and "in fashion as a man," might
seem to suggest an unreal, docetic view of Christ's humanity ifwe were dependent
upon these alone for our doctrine of the Incarnation. Fortunately we have the whole
testimony of the Gospel records to guide us in the interpretation of these expressions,
and this testimony affirms that the humanity of our Lord was real. The Apostle's
reason for speaking as he does in this text is not to insinuate that Christ was not true
man, but probably to remind his readers that there is after all a difference between
the man Jesus and man who is a sinner. Sinfulness is not a necessary characteristic
of humanity, though it happens to be a universal characteristic of the humanity that
we know. Because this last is so, men are in the habit of regarding sinfulness and
humanity as correlative terms. Who has not heard that hoary-headed excuse for
the sinner, "Well, he is, only human"? We have here, I think, a sufficient
explanation of Paul's use of such terms as "likeness" and "fashion" in
his reference to Christ's humanity; it is the guarded language of inspiration
upon a theme where a misstep may invite confusion. (Compare the careful
phrase in Rom. 8:3).
To the New Testament writers Christ is a real man made "in all things like unto
brethren," yet we are not to forget there is a difference; we are sinners, but He is "holy
guileless, undefiled, separated from sinners." Aside from this there is no limit in His
kenosis. He becomes partaker of "flesh and blood"; is born of a woman under the law;
grows in wisdom and in stature; is often hungry and weary; meets temptation, not as
God, but as man, "being tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin"; learns
"obedience by the things which he suffered"; knows not the day of His second coming.
Yet these limitations, self-imposed as they were, do not open the way for any
dishonoring views regardingHis trustworthiness as a teacher; they do not make of
Him the fallible Jewish rabbi of Modernism. Such inferences from kenosis are hasty
When He took upon Him servant-form, the Son of God came to be the perfect
servant, to reveal the ideal servanthood. But the perfect servant must render a perfect
service. Not many will care to affirm that our Lord failed at this point. He Himself
could say: "I do nothing of myself, but as the Father taught me, I speak these things.
And he that hath sent me is with me; he hath not left me alone; for I do always the
things that are pleasing to him." (John
THE DOCTRINE OF THE KENa;IS IN PHILIPPIANS 2:5-8 11
8.:28-29..) And again: "For I speak not from myself, but the Father that sent me, he hath
given me commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak" John ).
"Which of you convicteth me of sin?" John 8:46). There is no room for fallibility
here, whatever view we may take of Christ's humiliation. On the contrary, as Bishop
Moule has pointed out, the kenosis itself becomes the guarantee of His infallibility.
Whatever He was before entrance into human existence, by His "self-emptying" He
becomes the perfect bond-servant of Jehovah, who does nothing and speaks nothing
from Himself, but speaks only what the Father "commands," and does "always the
things that are pleasing to him." Therefore, in the days of His flesh, the Son of Man
may be trusted without reserve in every statement He has been pleased to make, for
His words are in every instance the very words of God.
The great ethical end of the kenosis was servanthood. This conception arose in the
Messianic prophecy of Isaiah; it was announced from the lips of our Lord Himself, "The
Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom
for many"; it was exemplified throughout His whole earthly ministry, which might have
been appropriately summed up in His own words, "I am among you as one who serveth."
This is a prominent idea in both steps of His humiliation as set forth in the Philippian
text. In the first step, as God, He had emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant.
Then, as man, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death.
An impressive thought in both of these steps is the perfect freedom and
voluntariness of the Son of God. No theory of the kenosis can be true which brings
Him into an earthly state where it is impossible for Him to assert "equality with God."
Room must be left for a "voluntary perseverance not to assert that equality, on the part
of One Who could do otherwise.” He assumed servant-form and died upon the cross
for us, not because of any compulsion external to Himself, but according to the free
and loving choice of His own will. "He was no Victim of a secret and irresistible destiny
such as that which,
in the Stoic's theology, swept the gods of
change and extinction as surely as it swept men to their ultimate annihilation." When
He stooped to servanthood and death He did so with all the sovereign free will of One
whose choices are limited only by His own holy and loving will. "He emptied himself."
"He humbled himself. "
This voluntary perseverance in that mind which led Him first to the kenosis
and finally to the cross has an important bearing on the problem of His self-consciousness.
It implies a certain continuity of self-consciousness throughout all the changes
incident to His earthly state. He knew, while on earth, of His pre -existent state;
He was aware of the mind which had actuated Him in exchanging the God-form
for the servant-form; and He purposed to have "that mind in him" down to the last
act in the great drama of redemption. "I know whence I came, and whither I go,"
He says to the Pharisees. And drawing near to the hour of death, He repels all
suggestions of any possible change in His own eternal purpose by declaring steadily,
"But for this cause came I unto this hour" John 8: 14; 12:27).
But the writer of the Philippian letter will not permit us to forget that,
even while our blessed Lord was acting in the manner of a sovereign (for such He was),
He was also acting in filial obedience to the Father's will. In humbling Himself, He
became obedient unto death. Not that He was obeying death when He died --death
had no claim upon Him --but in dying He
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was obeying the Father whose bond-servant He had come to be. The thought is that
He obeyed God so utterly as to die. Does not all this take up back in memory to that
moment of the age when the Son, entering into the world, announces, "Lo, I am
come; in the roll of the book it was written of me: I delight to do thy will, 0 God"?
it not take us back to
triumphant cry, "Father, not my will, but thine be done"?
In the death of Christ there was a marvelous blending of sovereign choice
and utter obedience. He humbled Himself unto death; yes, but He was also obedient
unto death. Speaking of His approaching death, our Lord Himself blends these two
things in a striking passage from chapter 10 of John's Gospel. 'I lay down my life,
" He says, "that I may take it again. No one taketh it away from me, but I lay it
down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again"
("power" in each case in Greek is exousian. R. V. marg., "-right”). Certainly this
is sovereign choice. But let us read on: "This commandment received I from my
Several years ago, while I was engaged in a study of the Philippian Epistle,
a letter came to me bearing news of the death of a friend and former classmate who
had laid down his life for Christ in foreign missionary service. He had been a brilliant
student, was wealthy in his own right, and at the completion of the seminary
course he was married to a beautiful and talented young woman. In this country he
might have had everything ordinarily desirable to men –business success, comfort,
ease, and luxury. But there was in him the mind of Christ; if I may dare to use the
words reverently, he freely "emptied himself" of all these prospects, becoming a
servant of the cross
was obedient “unto death.”
But the free obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ rises above all human
comparison. He was indeed obedient unto death, but more than that, even unto
the death of the cross. After all the death of my friend was only a joyful "loosing
away upward" to be with the Christ whose he was and whom he served. There
were no pangs, no sting, in death for him. How different was the death of the cross!
That was a "death of unimaginable pain and utmost shame, a death which to the Jew
was a symbol of the curse of God, and to the Roman was a horror of degradation.”
Nor was this all. It was a death in which all the pent up wrath of the law against
human sin would fall upon the blessed head of Jehovah's Servant, a death in which
He must plumb the depths of “a soul that's lost." None of this was hid from His
eyes. Having counted the cost, for our sakes "He humbled himself, becoming
obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”
One determining factor in various interpretations of the Philippian passage has
been the central problem of the incarnation, namely, What is the relation of the divine
to the human historic Christ? The Apostle Paul certainly must have known that his
statement would raise problem but, like other New Testament writers, makes no attempt
to solve it. In the main, writers of Scripture are content to assert the reality of the two
natures in Christ, without attempting a rationalization of their doctrine. Perhaps it is
wisdom to leave the matter as they it. One hesitates to enter a field of controversy
where so many well-intentioned men have
THE DOCTRINE OF THE KENOSIS IN PHILIPPIANS 2:5-8 13
slipped into errors ranging from an Apollinarian denial of any human soul in the
Saviour to the Nominalistic doctrine of two wills and two minds --in fact,
two persons. But the church has been compelled to enter this field by reason
of the deviations of those who oftentimes were numbered among her own sons.
one divine and the other human. These two natures are perfectly and organically
united in one Person, yet they remain distinct, each retaining its complete integrity.
We must neither "confound the natures, nor divide the Person. "The seat of
personality in this Person is the Logos, the eternal Son.
The main criticism of this formula, from the standpoint of the older
psychology, was how Christ could have but one personality, if in Him there
were two distinct natures, namely, the human soul and the Logos-spirit. Did not
the soul of a man constitute a personality in itself? The ancient church never
wholly succeeded in answering this rather formidable objection, but nevertheless
wisely refused to alter the formula. Her position is now being vindicated, I believe,
by the latest pronouncements of modem psychology. The personality--also the
mind--we are told, is not metaphysical, but is built up by the interaction constantly
taking place between the living organism and its environment. I cannot, of course,
accept this statement in toto. There is certainly a metaphysical basis for both mind
and personality. But with this reservation, the account seems to be true, and may be
of service in aiding us toward an understanding of the Person of Christ. The Logos,
in becoming flesh, was united with a true human soul in the body born of the Virgin
Mary. This soul on the human side provided a basis for the possible building
up of "a human mind and personality, and the building up process was perfectly
normal in all respects, except that it took place around and in vital union with the
Logos-spirit now emptied of His divine form. (Dr. Strong seems to suggest the
above view of personality when he says, “Nature has consciousness and will only
as it is manifested in person." Systematic Theology," p. 695.)
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Grace Theological Seminary
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: firstname.lastname@example.org