Doctrine of Christ (part 5)

September 20, 2011     Time: 00:31:24

We have been talking in our lesson about the doctrine of the two natures of Christ – his humanity and his deity. We saw that in the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 the church fathers agreed with the theologians of Antioch that Christ has two complete natures. He is fully human and fully divine. At the same time, they emphasized with the theologians of Alexandria that Christ is one person. There is not a human person, Jesus of Nazareth, and a divine person, the second person of the Trinity, the Logos. There is only one person in Christ, and that person has two natures – human and divine.

Kenotic Christology

We are going to leap ahead in our historical survey here to the 19th century because in the 19th century a radical new form of Christology emerged called Kenoticism – Kenotic Christology. The word comes from the Greek word kenosis which is used by Paul in Philippians 2:5-7. Let’s read that passage together,

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, [there’s the word for kenosis – he emptied himself taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

The idea of kenosis here is that Christ, in becoming incarnate, emptied himself in some way to take on human form. These Kenotic theologians thought that this meant that Christ divested himself of some of his divine attributes, that he gave up certain divine properties in order to become a human being. We can define Kenoticism as being the Christological view that says that, in the incarnation, Christ gave up certain properties of deity in order to become truly human. He gave up certain properties of deity in order to become a true human being.

This view raises a number of questions about, for example, the extent of the kenosis. How many attributes and which attributes did he give up? It raises questions about the relationship between the Logos and the man Jesus. If the Logos turned himself into a man, then what is the relationship between that man and the Logos? Are they identical? Or did he turn himself into another person? Then it also raises questions about the status of the divine attributes. Which ones are essential to God and which ones are merely contingent so that God could give them up?

Kenoticism represents a radically different kind of Christology than what we have at Chalcedon. You remember at Chalcedon it emphasized that, in the incarnation, the natures remain unchanged and undiminished, that Christ has a full human nature as well as a full divine nature and that there is nothing in the divine nature that changes in his becoming a man. But in Kenoticism it says that the Logos did change in his divine nature in certain ways. He gave up certain properties of divinity in order to become a human being. This raises, I think, the very real question as to whether or not Kenoticism doesn’t imply a denial of the deity of Christ. If Christ actually abandoned those properties which are distinctive of the divine nature, then didn’t he cease to be divine? Is the doctrine of the incarnation that Jesus literally turned himself into a human being, that he became a human being and thereby ceased to be God1? In that case, Kenoticism would involve a denial of the deity of the incarnate Christ.

Donald (D. M.) Baillie in his book on Christology2 demands,

Does Christianity, then, teach that God changed into a Man? . . . That at a certain point of time, God . . . was transformed into a human being for a period of about thirty years? It is hardly necessary to say that the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation means nothing like that. . . . it would be grotesque to suggest that the Incarnation has anything in common with the metamorphoses of ancient pagan mythology . . .

– ancient stories, for example, of Zeus’ turning himself into a swan or changing into a bull. Baillie says the Christian doctrine of the incarnation is not at all like that. He goes on to say,

. . . the deity and humanity of Christ are not merely successive stages . . . as if He had first been God, then Man, then after the days of His flesh were past, God again, with manhood left behind.

That is not the doctrine of the incarnation! The incarnation does not teach that God turned himself into a human being, thereby ceasing to be God, and then with the ascension turned himself back into God again, ceasing to be a human being. The doctrine of the incarnation which was promulgated or ratified at Chalcedon is that Christ is both God and man simultaneously.

The question, I think, that is raised by Kenotic Christology really concerns the content of the divine nature. That is to say, which properties really are essential to deity? What properties are essential to being God? Baillie thinks that any change in God would be an essential change from deity; that if God changed in any of his properties, he would thereby cease to be God, which is impossible. God can’t cease to be God. So he cannot change in any way, since an essential change would be a change in his nature. But it would be exactly at this point that Kenoticism would challenge the traditional doctrine of God. It would have to say that some of these properties that we normally have thought belong to the divine essence, like being omnipresent and omnipotent and so on, are not really essential to God. These are just contingent properties that he could give up and still remain essentially God. It raises a real question that we will need to explore about the content of the divine nature and what properties belong to God’s essence.


Question: Is there any connection in the early church thought between the Kenoticism which came later and Docetism which was around in the early church?

Answer: Well, one does not come to mind because Docetism seems to me to be almost the exact opposite of Kenoticism. Why is that? What Docetists denied is that the second person of the Trinity really did take on a human nature. The human nature of Christ was simply illusory or not really something that characterized the second person of the Trinity. Docetism comes from another Greek word dokeo which means “to appear” – he merely appeared to be taking on human flesh, but not really! So whereas kenosis seems to undermine the divine nature of Christ, Docetism seems to undermine the human nature of Christ. So they are almost, it seems to me, mirror images of each other. The one would deny Christ’s true humanity, the other threatens, at least, to deny his true deity3.

Question: When Jesus became flesh, he took on the baby pain and normal stuff that human beings feel and stuff like that, did he have in him at that time the Holy Spirit dwelling in him as we have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us? Does anybody know or speculate on that?

Answer: This is a good question. I think that work by New Testament scholars like James Dunn have emphasized that Jesus, in his ministry, was dependent upon and filled with the Holy Spirit. Remember that at the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, when he comes out of the water, the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove? Then the Spirit begins to lead Jesus throughout his ministry. It was the Spirit that drove him out into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. Jesus would recur to the power of the heavenly Father for the works that he did, for the ministry he carried out. I think that in the life and the ministry of Jesus we definitely see the person of the Holy Spirit powerfully at work in Jesus’ life.

Followup: Which leads me to continue part of my question. When he died, he took on flesh so he could be perfectly human. His flesh died for three days. The flesh itself was re-birthed, reborn or made alive again. They saw his physical body. His body was totally gone when they came to the tomb. It was not the flesh here and his spirit departed to heaven. It was somehow manifested back alive again, and then he, in body form, went to heaven – which will be different when we do.

Answer: Yes, that is right. We will talk about that more when we get to the work of Christ. When you look at the New Testament and the earliest writings and confessions about Jesus’ resurrection, it is very clear that they didn’t think that the resurrection was just some sort of a survival of Jesus’ spirit after death, but it was his physical body that had been crucified and laid in the tomb that was physically raised from the dead to glory and immortality, ahead of and in advance of the general resurrection of the dead which will occur on Judgment Day. So what happens in Jesus is a kind of first fruits of the general resurrection at the end of the world. So the humanity of Christ, the human nature of Christ, which died on the cross, is raised and glorified and given immortality, so that he can ascend to heaven and be fit for that eternal dominion.

Question: In your response to that last question, are you suggesting that Jesus did not do any miracles under his own power? He didn’t gain knowledge under his. . . that that wasn’t the Logos knowledge that was feeding into him, but it was the Holy Spirit that was feeding knowledge.

Answer: I am not suggesting that. I am open-minded about that. Let me clarify this question because it is a good one. Did Jesus do his miracles by his own power – that is to say, by the power of the Logos, the second person of the Trinity – or did he do them by the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling within him? Here I think that the biblical material is mixed on this question. For example, Jesus says at one point, “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). There he attributes the work to the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, he will often speak of “the works that I do bear witness to the Father,”4 and so forth. So I don’t have a firm opinion or position on that. It seems to me the biblical material is mixed as to whether we should think of the works of the incarnate Christ as done through him by the power of the Holy Spirit or whether we should think that he did these in his own power. I am open-minded about that.

Question: When the Son became Christ, the emptying is muting some of the attributes but not dispensing them. There is evidence where he is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, but he is not holding the world in his hand in a disembodied state. So there is some muting of that. But I think with the Holy Spirit it is a partnership because he says in John 15:26 – he is talking to the disciples and he said – “When the counselor comes whom I will send to you that proceeds from the Father, then he will testify about me.” So he has direction over the activities of the Spirit and what the Spirit is going to do subsequent to his resurrection5. So there is a partnership as I see it there. But the Logos clearly has those attributes but in a muted sense because he is going to walk around as a human being.

Answer: I think you are raising a good question. I should say, in fairness to the Kenotic theologians, not all of them thought that Christ gave up these attributes. Some of them did say, as you did, that he simply relinquished his use of these attributes. They were somehow occluded during the incarnation, like the sun going behind a cloud. The sun is still there, but it is now occluded by the cloud. So some of them would say that he still had these attributes but that he simply did not use them or that they were somehow put on reserve. There was quite a variety of different Kenotic-type theories. But we are interested in the most radical of them because that would be the most different from Chalcedon and would be the most interesting.

Question: Because that passage says “equality with God that he did not grasp,” I think understanding what equality with God is would give us some hints as to what he gave up. Because he was not willing to grasp on and hold onto that for dear life, so to speak, he gave that up – whatever equality with God means.

Answer: Yes, I think you are raising a good point about the exegesis of this passage. What did Paul have in mind here? Did he really think that Christ was giving up certain attributes? That is a question that I think we need to ask.

Apologetic Significance of the Incarnation

Let’s now turn to the apologetic significance of this question. It seems to me that this question of the incarnation is of vital apologetic significance because many people reject Christianity because they say the doctrine of the incarnation is a logical incoherence. Muslims, in particular, reject Christian faith because they think the doctrine of the incarnation is simply a contradiction in terms. It says that the same person is both omnipotent and limited in power. He is both omnipresent and living in Palestine. He is both eternal and yet confined to a life of about thirty years. He is omniscient and yet he doesn’t know the date of his second coming. So, for Muslims, the doctrine of the incarnation is simply a hopeless, logical incoherence and therefore Jesus cannot have been more than a mere prophet. So if you talk to informed Muslims, they will emphasize very strongly how much more rational the Muslim doctrine of Christ is than the mysterious, apparently self-contradictory, Christian view of who Christ is. This has been also picked up by modern secularists as well, who say that the doctrine of the incarnation is logically incoherent and therefore cannot be true. It doesn’t matter how much evidence you have for the resurrection of Jesus or fulfilled prophecy or whatever; a logical contradiction cannot be true. So this is a very important question apologetically.

A Possible Model of the Incarnation

In order to deal with this objection, we do not need to explain how Jesus really could be both God and man. That is probably a mystery which we don’t know and maybe never will know, at least until we get to glory. But what we can do is at least provide a possible model of the incarnation that is logically consistent and biblically faithful and therefore shows that this objection falls to the ground. If we can provide even a possible model of the incarnation which is true to the Bible, then it shows that the biblical doctrine is not logically incoherent. So what I am going to suggest is such a possible model. Again, I want to emphasize, I am not claiming that this is true. I am not claiming that I know how Jesus could be God and man. But I am claiming that here is a possible way of thinking about it that I think is consistent with the Bible and is fully, logically coherent6.

My proposal will involve three separate planks in it.

Plank One – Affirm Two Natures and One Person

Thesis (1), or plank (1), is that we should postulate with Chalcedon that in Christ there is one person who exemplifies two distinct and complete natures – one human and one divine. This first plank in our Christology will entail a rejection of any form of Kenoticism that suggests that in the incarnation the Logos surrendered various attributes that belonged to the divine nature. If Christ divested himself of any attribute which is essential to divinity, he thereby ceased to be God, which is impossible. God cannot commit deicide. He can’t cease to be God. So any form of Kenotic Christology which would say that God relinquished one of his essential attributes is ruled out.

Now the Kenoticist might try to avert this problem, as I said, by claiming that attributes such as omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and so on are not7 essential to deity. He might say these are not part of the divine essence or nature, and therefore they could have been given up by the Logos without his ceasing to be God. These are contingent properties that God just happens to have, but they are not essential to God, and therefore the Logos could give these properties up without ceasing to be God. While that doctrine is coherent, I think, however, that it entails a concept of God which is far too thin to be theologically acceptable. What that would imply is that there is a possible world in which God is weak, ignorant, limited in space and time, and would hardly, therefore, seem to be a being that is worth calling “God.” He would have to be as weak as Jesus of Nazareth was in this life, that is to say, just like a human being. It seems to me that no being that is no stronger than a human being, no more intelligent than a human being, limited in space and time in that way, deserves to be called “God.” If there were a possible world where a being such as that existed, I think we would say that God did not exist in that world – there is no such being as God in that world. So it seems to me that the concept of God that the Kenoticist has is just far too weak to be theologically acceptable.

Secondly, moreover, it seems that certain of the divine attributes cannot be temporarily given up in the way that the Kenoticists imagined. For example, suppose you say that, in the incarnation, the Logos gave up temporarily the attribute of omnipotence but that, after the ascension, he got omnipotence back again. That doesn’t make sense because if, during the incarnation, he had the ability to get omnipotence back, then that means that he really never surrendered it at all because omnipotence is a modal property. That is to say, it is a property about what one can do. It is not a de facto property; it is a modal property about what one is able to do. So if he is able to get omnipotence back again, then he still can do all those things that an omnipotent being can do! Therefore, he still is omnipotent. So by the very nature of the case, omnipotence is not something that you can temporarily give up and then get back again. Moreover, what about divine attributes like necessity, aseity, and eternity? It makes no sense at all to say that these were given up temporarily because, by their very nature, if you have these properties you always have them. If you have the property of eternality, you are eternal! You always have that property. If you have the property of existing necessarily, then you are always necessary8. If you have the property of aseity, self-existence, then you are always self-existing, you can’t give it up. So how could Christ die unless these properties were given up? If Christ died on the cross, then that would show that he is not eternal, that he doesn’t have aseity, that he is not necessary. It would seem that to answer this problem you would have to say, “Well, he only died in his human nature, but in his divine nature he still had necessity, eternality, and aseity.” But, you see, that is the traditional doctrine of Chalcedon! If you are going to say that, then there is no motivation for Kenoticism at all because you can say the same thing about omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience – namely, he was omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent in his divine nature, but in his human nature he was weak, limited in knowledge, and limited in space. So that is simply to revert back to Chalcedonian orthodoxy, if you take that route. If you don’t take that route, well, then, it seems that Kenoticism is simply impossible because certain divine attributes like necessity, eternality, and aseity cannot be relinquished.


Question: I guess I am having trouble understanding how you have these characteristics. Maybe the best way to think of it is a mute button? That just like the other questioner said: perhaps I have that, but through my will I set aside not to do it or not to use it or not to exercise it or not to know when my second coming is. But I can’t say, “You are omnipotent and yet you don’t know.” That is a conflict in my mind. How do you...?

Answer: I will get to that when I get to my third plank of the model. In the first plank, we do want to affirm Chalcedonian orthodoxy rather than Kenoticism. We want to say that he had these properties. The mute button analogy works nicely with omnipotence, I think – he kind of mutes that. But it doesn’t work so well with, say, necessity and aseity and eternity. You can’t sort of press the mute button on eternity or necessity. That is more difficult.

Question: If he had these properties, how could he have been tempted by Satan?

Answer: That was a question someone raised several weeks ago, and we will get back to that. If he is God, and God cannot be tempted, then how can Christ be tempted? We will come back to that. So hang on to that question; we won’t forget it!

Question: : This is really just a clarification of your first plank. It says he was two full, independent natures in one person. My question is the human nature – was it static or did it change through the human life?

Answer: I would say that, insofar as you speak of the essence of humanity, it did not change, in that humanity, as we saw, at least, with Aristotle, means to be a rational animal. That is the essence of humanity. He was always that. But certainly the human nature, insofar as you think of it as a concrete entity, a body/soul composite walking around Palestine, certainly he changed. In that he grew from a little boy to a man, he aged, he grew a beard, and so forth. So certainly in his concrete human nature, there was constant change.

Followup: : I was referring to the former.

Answer: The essence. No, I would say he doesn’t change in the essence of his humanity.

Followup: : He was not becoming more like his divine nature as he fulfilled the will of God? He is not like we are supposed to be – changed into the self-same image. . .

Answer: I think that he is sanctified. As we saw in Hebrews, it talks about how he was perfected through what he suffered. So in his human nature certainly he experienced sanctification and growth in moral virtue. But that is not a change in one’s essence, anymore than you cease to be human when you become more virtuous. Certainly Christ acquires more moral virtue as he grows older; he learns more – that is true. And he is sanctified, but he still always remains a human being in his humanity9.

Followup: What I would lean towards is what happens with us as we behold him as he is. There has got to be an essence change. . .

Answer: : Someone was raising this question last week. I don’t think we, in any way, cease to be human. I don’t agree that we as Christians or believers are going to be deified or turned into God. We are always going to be contingent human beings, children of Adam and Eve, and that remains our essence. But we will be sanctified and changed into his image in the sense of approximating his character.

Let me close it off here. What we will do next time is to sharpen this model a little bit and ask how these two natures can be successfully united in one person. That will be the next task before us10.


1 5:07

2 D. M. Baillie, God Was In Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), p. 82

3 10:00

4 cf. John 5:36, 10:25

5 15:24

6 20:05

7 21:44 Dr. Craig omits the word “not” in the audio

8 25:03

9 30:19

10 Total Running Time: 31:24 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)