This Greek term is formed from a reflexive verb meaning “he emptied himself” (Phil. 2:7). As a christological statement it has been appealed to as a scriptural warrant for a highly distinctive understanding of the Incarnation. In fact, P. Henry calls this theory “the fourth great attempt at a theological explanation of Christ's being.” The essence of the original kenotic view which goes back to Thomasius of Erlangen is stated by J.M. Creed: “The Divine Logos by His Incarnation divested Himself of His divine attributes of omniscience and omnipotence, so that in His incarnate life the Divine Person is revealed and solely revealed through a human consciousness.” F. Loofs demonstrates that nothing approaching an acceptance of this kenotic idea is to be found in the Church Fathers before the modern period. As a christological theory it is an innovation inspired by liberal theology.
Kenoticism falls into two categories corresponding to the two main presuppositions which underlie the theory. The notion of a surrender of divine attributes took its rise in Lutheran theology which, starting from the premise of communicatio idiomatum, so divinized the human nature of Christ as to produce a type of Monophysitism. But this raised problems for the nineteenth-century Lutherans who, led by Thomasius, proceeded to invert the communicatio idiomatum formula and assert the communication of Christ's human attributes to His deity. In this way they sought to safeguard the reality of His humanity-but at the expense of abolishing a continuance of His deity into His incarnate existence.
A more attractive and reasonable version of the principle that the incarnation of the divine Logos required a self- limitation was offered by the British theologians, H.R. Mackintosh and P.T. Forsyth, both of whom operated with categories of consciousness rather than metaphysics. For them, consciousness became the essence of personality; and they argued that it is a monstrous thought that the human Jesus could have sustained a divine consciousness. Instead, the eclipse of that divine awareness was the price He paid to become man, and it is that surrender which constituted the kenosis. But it remains doubtful if this modified kenoticism is any improvement, and both forms of the theory have to face the irreducible facts that God is unchangeable and the Atonement must be a work of God.
See R.P. Martin, Carmen Christi: Philippians ii. 5-11 in Recent Interpretation and in the setting of early Christian worship (1967), pp. 165-96.
Solutions to the problem have moved across the spectrum of five possible interpretations: (1) In the Incarnation, Christ gave up all divine attributes and thus ceased all cosmic functions and divine consciousness (Gess, Beecher, et al.). (2) A distinction is made between essential and relative attributes in God, and Christ in His Incarnation gave up not His essential attributes but only His relative attributes (Thomasius, Delitzsch, et al.). (3) In His obedience to His Father, Christ gave up no powers of the Deity but gave up their independent exercise. (4) His humanity was such that He did not exercise His divine powers at all (Martensen and Gore). (5) The divine nature united itself with His humanity only gradually, and His full deity was consummated finally at the resurrection. The Incarnation was process rather than act (Dorner).
Exegetes vary in their point of emphasis. The best interpretation of
Modern interpreters tend to evade the theological questions and even the exegetical questions in terms of the general thrust of the passage which is simply stating in vivid language Christ’s willingness to leave His glory for the cross. He suppressed Himself so utterly that only the vision of His rights in glory as against the shame of the cross can give mankind the “mind of Christ.”
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
ke-no’-sis: The word "kenosis" (kenosis) has entered theological language from
(2) An older exegesis felt only the last of these passages as a real difficulty. A distinction constructed between knowledge naturally possessed and knowledge gained by experience (i.e. although the child Jesus knew the alphabet naturally, He was obliged to learn it by experience) covered most of the others. For
(1) Yet the attempt so to misinterpret the verses is not the outcome of a barren dogmatic prejudice, but results from a dread lest real injury be done to the fundamentals of Christian consciousness. Not only does the mind of the Christian revolt from seeing in Christ anything less than true God, but it revolts from finding in Him two centers of personality--Christ was One. But as omniscience is an essential attribute of God, it is an essential attribute of the incarnate Son. So does not any limitation of Christ’s human knowledge tend to vitiate a sound doctrine of the incarnation? Certainly, to say with the upholders of the kenosis in its "classical" form that the Son, by an exercise of His will, determined to be ignorant as man, is not helpful, as the abandonment by God of one of His own essential attributes would be the preposterous corollary.
(2) Yet the Biblical data are explicit, and an explanation of some kind must be found. And the solution seems to lie in an ambiguous use of the word "knowledge," as applied to Christ as God and as man. When we speak of a man’s knowledge in the sense discussed in the kenotic doctrine, we mean the totality of facts present in his intellect, and by his ignorance we mean the absence of a fact or of facts from that intellect. Now in the older discussions of the subject, this intellectual knowledge was tacitly assumed (mystical theology apart) to be the only knowledge worthy of the name, and so it was at the same time also assumed that God’s knowledge is intellectual also--"God geometrizes." Under this assumption God’s knowledge is essentially of the same kind as man’s, differing from man’s only in its purity and extent. And this assumption is made in all discussions that speak of the knowledge of the Son as God illuminating His mind as man.
(3) Modern critical epistemology has, however, taught man a sharp lesson in humility by demonstrating that the intellect is by no means the perfect instrument that it has been assumed to be. And the faults are by no means faults due to lack of instruction, evil desires, etc., but are resident in the intellect itself, and inseparable from it’ as an intellect. Certain recent writers (Bergson, most notably) have even built up a case of great strength for regarding the intellect as a mere product of utilitarian development, with the defects resulting naturally from such an evolution. More especially does this restriction of the intellect seem to be true in religious knowledge, even if the contentions of Kant and (espescially) Ritschl be not fully admitted. Certain it is, in any case, that even human knowledge is something far wider than intellectual knowledge, for there are many things that we know that we never could have learned through the intellect, and, apparently, many elements of our knowledge are almost or quite incapable of translation into intellectual termsú Omniscience, then, is by no means intellectual omniscience, and it is not to be reached by any mere process of expansion of an intellect. An "omniscient intellect" is a contradiction in termsú
(4) In other words, God’s omniscience is not merely human intellectual knowledge raised to the infinite power, but something of an entirely different quality, hardly conceivable to human thought--as different from human intellectual knowledge as the Divine omnipotence is different from muscular strength. Consequently, the passage of this knowledge into a human intellect is impossible, and the problem of the incarnation should be stated: What effect did Divine omniscience in the person have on the conscious intellect of the manhood? There is so little help from the past to be gained in answering this question, that it must remain open at present--if, indeed, it is ever capable of a full answer. But that ignorance in the intellect of the manhood is fully consistent with omniscience in the person seems to be not merely a safe answer to the question as stated, but an inevitable answer if the true humanity of Christ is to be maintained at all.
Sanday’s Christology and Personality, 1911, and La Zouche, Thein Modern Thought, 1912, are among the latest discussions of the subject, with very full references to the modern literature.