“Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” – Philippians 2:6-8.
As is often the case with Scripture, the above verse from Philippians is intricate and inclusive of several significant theological implications. Accepting that the author of Philippians, Saint Paul, was referring to Christ, the above verse suggests three questions. What does it mean that Jesus “emptied” Himself? Also, we must inquire why Jesus “emptied” Himself. Finally, we may ask what, if any, implications does this have for Catholics today?
In this paper, I will examine these questions within the context of the Incarnation and Christology and explore what is meant by “an emptying.”
Incarnation And Divine Condescension
Like science, theology often draws heavily on words of Latin and Greek origin. Such is the case with kenosis, a Greek word that is translated into English as “an emptying.” In Philippians 2:6-8, Saint Paul uses the word kenosis to denote this “emptying” of Christ.
In order to place kenosis in its proper context, it is beneficial to define two claims of immense Christological significance.
The first is the fundamental assertion of Catholicism that God became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ. This assertion is called the Incarnation (taking on or embodying a physical body). The Incarnation, of course, is the foundation for not only the fullness of divine revelation but also for the saving work of Christ.
The second claim is called divine condescension. Divine condescension refers to God, who is utterly transcendent, “lowering” Himself to the level of human beings for the purpose of communicating Himself to mankind. Because of the limitation of the human intellect, certain truths related to God can only be known when God reveals them to us. Put differently, God became a man so as to make Himself intelligible to human beings.
When these two principles – the Incarnation and divine condescension- are understood together, one is in a position to understand kenosis.
The concept of kenosis is that God – in the person of Jesus Christ – “emptied Himself” and became a human being. This statement is somewhat ambiguous, for we must ask what God emptied Himself of.
Emptied Of What?
In returning to the text of Philippians 2:6-8, it is important to adhere to a strict interpretation. That is to say; one should not impart into the text anything that is not there. To add or infer what is not evident in the text can lead to problematic conclusions, for example, that Jesus emptied Himself of His divine attributes. In turn, such a conclusion suggests that Jesus ceased to be God when He took a human nature at the Incarnation. Such a conclusion can lead to a form of Nestorianism or Docetism, both heresies that the Catholic Church has condemned.
Therefore, to avoid such confusion, we must begin with the understanding that, in becoming human, Jesus did not cease to be God. Rather, in agreement with the hypostatic union, Jesus took upon Himself a human nature while retaining His divine nature. To paraphrase the Council of Chalcedon, Jesus possesses two natures that are joined “in one person and one hypostasis” (Denzinger 302), where hypostasis means one substance.
It is more logically consistent to view kenosis as Christ emptying Himself of His privileges in Heaven. Rather than stay on His throne in Heaven, Jesus became a man in order to effect our salvation. Again, one sees the connection between kenosis and divine condescension.
A positive definition or understanding of kenosis is to view it as self-renunciation. To consider it this way allows one to see that, while Jesus renounces or puts aside His heavenly glory and submits His will to the will of the Father, He never ceases to be God.
Yet, one can argue that, within the nature of kenosis, Jesus sometimes operated within the mode or limitations of humanity. Jesus, in His divine nature, cannot become tired or thirsty; Jesus, in His human nature, did (John 4:6; 19:28). And, again, while Jesus in His divine nature is omniscient, that omniscience is not always present in His human nature.
Kenosis And The Catholic Experience
Within the concept of kenosis, one sees the ultimate expression of the humility of Jesus, who put aside all the advantages and powers of divinity in order to save us. God really did become a man with all of the attendant difficulties and frailties that that entails (with the exception of sin).
The humility exhibited by Jesus can be a model of mortification and self-renunciation for Catholics. To truly take up one’s cross and follow Jesus requires that we empty ourselves of pride, arrogance, and disordered passions. It is only in so doing that we can conform our lives to Christ’s.
Kenosis is, in a sense, paradoxical. While the “emptying” implies no small amount of humility, the result is intended to bring exaltation. Jesus himself said, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
If we join ourselves to Jesus by emptying ourselves, then we will join him in being exalted as we enter into union with God forever in Heaven.
A core principle of Catholicism is the recognition that the transcendent God came “down” from Heaven and became a man for the purpose of saving human beings from the devastating effects of sin. In order to accomplish this, God – in the person of Jesus Christ – emptied Himself of the glory due Him in Heaven.
In this paper, I have sought to examine this “emptying,” known as kenosis, by examining divine condescension and the Incarnation.