Kenosis: The Self-Emptying of Christ in Scripture and Theology

Paul T. Nimmo and Keith L. Johnson, eds. Kenosis: The Self-Emptying of Christ in Scripture and Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2022. xi + 332 pages. $65.00, cloth.

Usually, when one sees the word ‘kenosis,’ what comes to mind is the doctrinal aberration which makes the claim that the incarnation of Jesus Christ resulted in God himself paradoxically giving up his divine attributes. In other words, kenosis, drawing from Greek verb κενόω found in Phil. 2:7 and rendered as, e.g., “emptied” (ESV), is argued to imply that the incarnation was an event whereby God emptied himself of those very attributes which constitute his divinity. Noting that Phil. 2:5-11 is a key text for understanding the doctrine of kenosis, the editors’ state that their purpose with this volume is “to offer a timely orientation to some of the most important historical considerations of and current research on” (5) the theme of kenosis, which they define as “the biblical claim that Christ Jesus emptied and humbled himself in obedience … to death upon the cross” (1).

So far, the editors’ stated purpose and definition of kenosis does not alleviate the concern that this volume is in fact a defense of the deviant theological position mentioned above. One’s concern is heightened when one considers that this volume is an informal festschrift (“dedication” [x]) to Bruce McCormack, who offered a controversial retooling of the Chalcedonian Definition with his proposal for a ‘Reformed Kenoticism.’ Despite these apparent warning signs, the reader will be pleased to discover that, quite the contrary, in these pages we find a clear defense of orthodox Christology.

To begin with, in a powerful exposition of the crux interpretum, Philippians 2:5-11, John M. G. Barclay argues that God’s power is “qualitatively different from human power” (17) and, therefore, Christ did not relinquish his divine power; rather, he expressed this power in the weakness of his humanity for the purpose of reconciling humanity to God under his lordship. Beverly Roberts Gaventa, upon exploring conceptual parallels of Christ’s ‘emptying’ in Romans, concludes, along similar lines to Barclay, that God’s power is shown in Christ’s salvific work.

Turning to historical theology, Hans-luen Kantzer Komline argues that Augustine sees Christ’s self-emptying as adding to himself a human nature. Paradoxically, given the assumption of humanity by the second person of the Trinity, “Christ was greater than himself and he was less than himself simultaneously as one unified person” (113). Moving into more systematic territory, and following her discussion of Cyril, T. F. Torrance, and Thomas Aquinas, Sonderegger writes “[Christ] knows that it is his own deity, his own divine breaking and descent that is the agent … Just this is what it means for God to save. Just this is what it means for Christ in his person to be a sacrifice” (135). Later, Thomas Joseph White helpfully clarifies that sound “kenotic theology” says that “the transcendent God submitted to human becoming” (154) without changing in his deity.

Despite an orthodox approach to the doctrine of kenosis persuasively argued for by the aforementioned essays, Grant Macaskill’s exposition of Colossians and Hebrews cuts against the grain. Drawing from McCormack’s controversial formula that Christ’s humanity is essential to and thus, in some sense, constitutive of the divine being, Macaskill argues that Col. 2:9 (“deity dwells bodily” ESV) “suggests that this embodiment defines all of the Son’s activity. The Son mediates creation as the creaturely firstborn” (50-51). This is based on his conviction that “[t]he Son cannot be identified apart from Jesus” (57).

Beyond Macaskill’s significant departure from a traditional Reformed understanding of Christology (and theology), a number of other essays will feel a bit foreign to Reformed readers such as Hannah Reichel’s case for a “deep incarnation” (299) which sees God’s kenosis in Christ as having the primary end of reconciling both human and non-human creatures to the creator, with the consequence that the particularity of Christ’s humanity loses theological relevance. Keith Johnson, moreover, gives a sympathetic ear to the theological musings of black liberation theology James Cone, connecting the latter’s theology to Christ’s humility and the late Christoph Schwöbel denies divine impassibility in agreement with McCormack.

One primary theme emerges throughout the range of essays in this volume: God’s power is uniquely expressed in the humility of Christ. The serious and sustained attention given to the incarnation of Christ establishes this book as a worthwhile read, even if the conclusions and statements of some of the essays would not be agreeable to the reader of a Reformed persuasion. The usefulness of this volume is twofold: (1) it offers serious, fresh scholarship defending an orthodox view of Christ’s humility and (2) it gives the reader a sense of some of the ways theologians are applying and extending Christ’s incarnation. Though there are major and minor issues that attend this work, these are balanced by the strength of insight also found in its pages. In sum, while the book must be read with discernment, it is, overall, a significant contribution to scholarship on the incarnation of Christ.

Thomas Haviland-Pabst
Montreat College