God without the “Omnis?” Advent and Kenosis

God without the “Omnis?” Advent and Kenosis December 2, 2022

God without the “Omnis?” Advent and Kenosis

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According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus Christ grew in stature and wisdom and favor with God and man. According to the Gospel of John, he was God. According to Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, the Word, Son of God, divested himself of glory and took on the “form” of servant.

The ancient Christian churches of the Roman Empire were divided over the nature of this incarnation and of Jesus’s status as God and/or human. I do not have space here to explain all the various views that conflicted and had to be sorted out—especially and with some finality (for orthodox Christians) at the councils of Nicea (325, 381) and Chalcedon (451). But the end result that has stood for centuries as the landmark of Christian orthodox belief, central to the gospel, is that in Jesus Christ the God of the universe became human while remaining divine. He was and is two natures without division or separation and without confusion or change.

For centuries most Christian theologians believed and taught that this means he, Jesus Christ, the God-man, remained omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent (as the Logos, the eternal Word, God the Son) even while he was a human being walking the dusty roads of Palestine and dying on a Roman cross. A mystery, a paradox, perhaps even a contradiction in terms.

Then…along came German Protestant theologian Gottfried Thomasius (1802-1875) who taught that in the incarnation the Son of God, God the Son really divested himself of glory, of the “omnis,” and not only appeared to be truly human, not only took on a “human nature,” but became one of us, just like us, but without sin. Thomasius’s Christology later became known as “Kenotic Christology” from “kenosis,” Greek for emptying. According to Thomasius, the Son of God, while remaining truly God, emptied himself of his glory in order to live and die as a human being. During his earthly life, Jesus, God the Son, truly did not have the use of his omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence.

Predictably, Thomasius’s proposal created a furor among the theologians. It has been called heresy by many conservative Protestants ever since it was first proposed. Yet, ironically, at the same time, those same conservative Protestants sing Charles Wesley’s great hymn with the words that he “emptied himself of all but love.” (Wesley’s hymn pre-dated Thomasius’s kenotic view by about a century!)

After Thomasius, many Christian theologians have “tinkered” with “kenotic Christology,” answering questions about it and attempting to show that it need not be heretical or even heterodox. Among them were several British theologians—notably Peter Taylor Forsyth, H. R. Mackintosh, and Charles Gore.

The first time I heard kenotic Christology explained, probably in seminary, I recognized it as what I had always believed. My seminary theology professors treated it as a valid evangelical option, not a heresy. That comforted me. Yet, as I entered into the “guild” of evangelical theologians I discovered that most of the “big names” in that guild considered it heresy. I read their descriptions (e.g., in Millard Erickson’s three volume systematic theology) and criticisms and realized at least some, perhaps most of them did not really understand it! They treated it as belief that the Son of God “gave up” his deity. That would be heresy, indeed. It’s also unthinkable.

When I presented kenotic Christology, as expressed and defended by conservative evangelical theologians like P. T. Forsyth (if you don’t know about him, look him up!) to my students most of them asked how it could be explained. I finally came up with an analogy—depicting (not perfectly but adequately) how a person can “give up” attributes while remaining himself or herself. Sleep. When you are asleep, in a certain stage of sleep called REM sleep, you are paralyzed. God forbid that you should wake up during that stage of sleep! It has happened to me and it’s terrifying. During REM sleep you are still yourself but without the ability to use all of your “powers.” And while you are asleep in any stage of sleep you aren’t consciously aware of who you are, where you are, etc., but you are still you with all of your powers of intellect. The “powers” are just dormant. And, most of the time, perhaps all of the time, you made them dormant voluntarily by lying down and going to sleep.

Yes, it’s only an analogy; it isn’t perfect and it doesn’t explain everything or make the incarnation less than a mystery. What it does, however, is clear up the confusion about whether a person can still be the same and still “have” his or her abilities while they are dormant. That is P. T. Forsyth’s version of kenotic Christology even if Thomasius himself described his theory imperfectly, calling for qualifications and explanation.

The next question students asked is how did Jesus, with his dormant deity-powers, perform miracles and know things beyond normal human ability to know? Kenotic Christology says that he depended on the Holy Spirit for these abilities—which is why he could and did say to his disciples that after he returned to the Father, the Holy Spirit, the “Paraclete,” whom he would send to them, would give them ability to do “greater things” than he had done! (John 14)

The “gist” here is that, contrary to the calumnies of many conservative evangelical theologians, kenotic Christology is not heretical or even heterodox and is even more biblical than the traditional view that Jesus, during his earthly existence and ministry, has two minds—one omniscient and one limited. That so-called “two minds Christology” leans toward the heresy of Nestorianism (that “Jesus Christ” was actually two persons in perfect union).

For me, Advent means that God literally became human while remaining God and that his humanity was not a disguise but who he became and was and is.

If you are interested in kenotic Christology and want to know more about it, as it truly is, not its common misrepresentations by many conservative evangelical heresy-hunting evangelical theologians, I recommend you begin by reading “The Form of a Servant” by theologian Donald Dawe (originally published in 1963 and now reprinted by Wipf and Stock). Or if you have “deep pockets,” obtain (or borrow if you can) “Kenosis: The Self-Emptying of Christ in Scripture and Theology” (2022) edited by Paul T. Nimmo and Keith L. Johnson (Eerdmans). Johnson was my student and teaching assistant and I recall teaching him about kenotic Christology. Another source is “Exploring Kenotic Christology: The Self-Emptying of God” by my former colleague C. Stephen Evans (Regent College Publishing, 2009). If you want to go back to “the source” (after Thomasius whose book is out of print) read P. T. Forsyth’s classic “The Person and Place of Jesus Christ” (now in the public domain and available from different publishers in different formats including Kindle at Amazon.com).

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