A Philosophical Critic Of Kenotic Theories


Theories of the incarnation that view God the Son as temporarily emptying or stripping himself of some of the divine attributes, such as omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience are known as kenotic theories (from Greek kenoō, “to empty” in Philippians 2:7)

Thomas V. Morris, who finds these views wanting, correctly expounded that these theories, “involves the attempt to maintain that in order to become incarnate as a human being, God the Son, Second Person of the Trinity, temporarily divested himself of all divine properties not compossibly exemplifiable with human nature.” (Morris 2001: 89)

A general case against kenotic theories would base on the Anselmian notion of God viz., aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit.

  1. If God is a being that which none greater can be conceived, then omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence [and moral perfection], greatness making properties, are necessarily essential attributes.
  2. If it was the case that kenotic theories were true, then it is metaphysically possible for God the Son to “laid down” or temporarily limited the exercise of some of greatness making properties, namely there is a possible world in which God lacks or temporarily limits his greatness making properties.
  3. It is metaphysically impossible for a being that which none greater can be conceived to lack or limit the exercise of any of greatness making properties in any possible world.

By essential attributes I mean the attributes that are of necessity a being could not fail to have yet still exist. Those attributes that a being could fail to have yet still exists are accidental attributes (e.g. Creator, God would still be God even if He did not create the universe).

It would follow, if my assertions 1-3 are true, that any kenosis theory ultimately deny the deity of God the Son, namely which none greater can be conceived when He incarnated, since a being that lacks or limit the exercise of any of greatness making properties cannot be said to be God in any meaningful sense.

Therefore it is metaphysically impossible, if God the Son is God, to “laid down” or temporarily limit the exercise of some of greatness making properties, without ceasing to be God thus it is not the case that kenotic theories are true.


Morris, Thomas V. (2001) The Logic of God Incarnate. Wipf and Stock Publishers. Eugene OR.

31 thoughts on “A Philosophical Critic Of Kenotic Theories

  1. To anyone trying to grasp this..
    ITS IMPORTANT TO square the Jesus Christ in the Bible with the philosophical box you paint yourself into. Jesus was a real person who was tempted, cried, and bled in the agony of anxiety in the garden–hardly the attributes of God in heaven. He didnt know certain things–he grew in knowledge.

    If that dont fit in your box then throw it out because there’s just preconceived biased garbage in it. We dont get to decide what God can accomplish. The Gospels do that for us. For Jesus to be a real baby he could not be thinking of anything more than sucking his thumb. Therefore, it is obvious that little baby Jesus did not know he was God at this time. The Gospels show us he was dependent on his Father. He was led by the spirit into the wilderness.===so the Son of God’s divine nature was thinking through the limitation of a human brain in time and space.
    I ask..is your God too small? Thats what Islam thinks. They think he cant be a trinity. So why do we limit the incarnation and box it in as if our childish philosophical constructs can comprehend it? Tell me you KNOW the Son of God cannot put away all attributes but the ones he needed to be human. You dont know any such thing. What we do know is what Jesus did–how he acted. To put aside the clear descriptions of him being made like us in every way is to rewrite the bible.

  2. I have enjoyed reading the article and the discussion on Christology, one of my fav subjects. Implications of the Son’s self-limitation theology can be far reaching if we do not carefully tease apart the concepts as Glenn stated. Voluntary limit, vs inability that is the key.

    Did Jesus really not know the hour of the Second Coming? I believe He had access to such attribute as omniscience at all times, as he maintained His divinity 100% and humanity 100% … But… as a a human he chose in His servitude to lay down certain aspects of His attributes…. He certainly knew “their thoughts” so He chose to forego only certain aspects of omniscience.

  3. Prayson, the real pushback from those who find a kenotic Christology appealing (to say nothing of the fact that they think it is biblical) is over the apparent combining of rather different concepts, namely: “lacks or temporarily limits.” If it is a lack then it is not a temporary limit, and vice versa.

    Obviously there is an important difference between God the Son setting aside his access to X or not exercising it on the one hand, and his literally lacking X in any sense. So before this is going to be a criticism of all forms of kenosis, you’ll need to pull apart those concepts instead of combining them and specify which one you are taking issue with – or else state that you take issue with them both, and explain how your argument applies in turn to each.

    My 2 cents at this stage.

    • Glenn, you rose a robust concern on the difference between temporary lacking X, and and temporary limiting X, which I will have to take into account in my future critic of kenotic Christology.

      What I was aiming, if successful, was to take issue with both forms. It would seam that my critic, as it is, would affect more temporal lacking of any greatness making properties than it would with temporal limiting of any greatness making properties. That, I believe, is a weakness in my critic because I have not made clear, than assumed, that it is metaphysically impossible to limit any of greatness making properties.

      Thank you so much Glenn. It is an honor to have your input.

      • You flatter me 🙂

        From what I can tell, most advocates of kenosis would advocate something like a temporal limiting rather than lacking. See for example Exploring Kenotic Christology: The Self-Emptying of God edited by C. Stephen Evans (Oxford, 2006), where a number of Christian thinkers (including conservative Reformed theologian Cornelius Plantinga) speak in favour of the viability of a kenotic view.

        Contributors: C. Stephen Evans, Gordon D. Fee, Sarah Coakley, Stephen T. Davis, Ronald J. Feenstra, Bruce N. Fisk, Ruth Groenhout, Edward T. Oakes, SJ, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Thomas R. Thompson, Edwin Chr. van Driel.

  4. I always thought of Christ’s “emptying of Himself” not as an emptying OF anything in Himself, but rather as an emptying INTO “the form of a servant.” He was all there, the whole time, even in death. And most wonderfully, in His resurrection in which we who are His are blessed to share!

  5. Prayson,

    I am under the impression that there is an inter-trinitarian way of understanding certain theories of kenosis. I am throwing around the idea that it wasn’t an all out kenosis but rather (a la your understanding of Philippians 2) a (perfect) dependence upon the Holy Spirit that was unlike eternity past. In other words, what do you think of the “laying aside” part and “taking up” via the Spirit. The reason I ask is because I am hopeful that there is a certain way of preserving kenosis. That is, I think it has to be true in some sense. What say you ? Very interested 😉

    • I believe we are thinking on the same line Devon and I agree with the points you rose. Interesting I answered that question, or attempted to, on the comment reply to Patrick below. Thanks for your input Devon.

  6. I’m sorry, but it’s quite hilarious to watch Christian’s try to shoehorn Jesus into something logical. An omnipotent god who forgot he was omnipotent for 33 years. I do hope you see the silliness of it all.

    • I see that Peter van Inwagen’s observation: “Thinking clearly for an extended period is hard. It is easier to pour scorn on those who disagree with you than actually to address their arguments” is true. 🙂

      Thank you John.

        • Then ridiculing is not the way to go John. You need to show the difference between your mere opinions and clear thinking by pointing where you think the case or understand of Jesus makes no sense.

          Above, we ought to understand something before we disagree. From your comment, it seems you do not understand the basics of Christology, sorry if I am wrong.

          • You’re wrong. i’ve seen and understand all the arguments and one is funnier than the other…. little more than excuses.

            Have you ever considered the quite obvious fact that if your particular religion were true there wouldn’t be apologetics? Seems this somewhat awkward reality is ignored by most theists.

          • What red herring? You’re talking about apologetics here. So am I. Apologetics is the rather ambitious attempt to defend the claim that the bible is the inerrant word of an infallible, omnipotent god. By extension such a god should be able to state exactly what it wants to say and do so free of any and all ambiguity. Its word should be unencumbered by cultural idiosyncrasies and remain unmolested by divergences in language, calligraphy, obscure and dead lexicons, future dialects, exotic morphemes, or even illiteracy and deafness. Its word should contain no contradiction, no absurdity, no oversight or declarations that are in conflict with observed facts. Its word should penetrate all tribal, domestic and international legal code and remain morally true in a timeless continuum. Such an entity should be instantly recognisable to all sentient creatures regardless of locale or epoch, and its actions should exhibit no fault or favour, no bias, prejudice, second-thought or indeed, if omnipotent, no mind-set at all.

            Now here comes that awkward moment for the bible-wielding fundamentalists like yourself, Prayson. If this claim were in way true there wouldn’t be apologists practicing apologetics. It’s as simple as that.

          • Not really because the case I present does not attempt to justify a belief in a god-man but to critic kenotic theories. I believe none believer philosopher could offer the same critic namely assuming that God exists, and Jesus is believed to be God, then kenotic theories are false.

          • Christology is just a part of the larger subject of apologetics. You’re trying to explain your religion. Trying to present a plausible articulation of your belief. All I’m saying is debating the christ-nature of your religion is ignoring the fundamental failures of that religion which is present in the fact that apologetics even exists. That’s to say, it’s pointless to debate the christ-nature without first explaining why apologetics even exists in the first case. Evidently, because apologetics exists, your religion is wrong. If it wasn’t there wouldn’t be apologetics…. rendering any later debate redundant and pointless.

          • Did you not understand a thing i just wrote? Any critic is utterly pointless (meaningless might be a better word) because your religion has already been proven false. It’s like debating the finer points of the Flat Earth theory in 2013.

      • “the existence of apologetics proves your religion is wrong” Totally false and inaccurate. The deceiver seeks to tempt and bring doubt. The deceivers are on the outside of Gods love. They hate all who worship the one true God. Do not fall into their trap.

        Apologetics is the discipline of defending a position (often religious) through the systematic use of information, defending the faith against critics.

        Christian apologetics combines Christian theology, natural theology, and philosophy to present a rational basis for the Christian faith, to defend the faith against objections and misrepresentation, and to expose error within other religions and world views.

        The critical, unbeliever types are outside the Kingdom of the blood-bought, spirit-filled Church, and as such, they are critical, they laugh and ridicule.

        The Bible speaks of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Is Jesus God? Yes. He’s God the Son. Is it a stretch to believe that God would come to us in the form of a man, born of a woman, to teach, establish His Church, then allow Himself to be killed as a sacrifice that so whoever believes shall have eternal life? The grave can not hold God the Son and it wasn’t until He returned after the resurrection, and the Holy Spirit rained upon believers, that the real mission started.

        “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:29

  7. How do you compare this with Paul’s idea of Jesus “making himself nothing,” as he speaks of in Philippians 2?

    Also, your assumptions are based on an Aristotelian metaphysic, which tells us that no two sources can occupy the same space, making the hypostatic union of Jesus’ God and Man natures natures impossible. Christians in the past have simply chalked this up to mystery, but if we are to be fair, is it possible that, perhaps, it is our choice of metaphysics that is inaccurate?

    Just a thought. 🙂

    • Thanks Patrick for a brilliant input and things worth pondering. I believe Paul explained how Jesus made himself nothing. He emptied himself by taking the form of a servant. So it was loosely speaking subtraction by addition.

      Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, correctly, I believe, argued that the context favors the interpretation of ” “emptying” as equivalent to “humbling himself “and taking on a lowly status and position.” He concluded, and I agree that “[t]he emptying includes change of role and status, not essential attributes or nature.”(2004: 50)

      Could you expound more on where and(or) how you think I made assumptions based on an Aristotelian metaphysic? 🙂

      • Sorry, by you, I meant Anselm. This is what much of the church father’s metaphysics are based on, especially St. Thomas Aquinas. His arguments for the existence of God are textbook Aristotle, from what I know (which isn’t a whole lot). I’ve been reading Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian and listening to some podcasts talking about how Christians root their metaphysical understanding of God in Aristotle’s metaphysics, an understanding many scholars have come to reject due to the Enlightenment and other movements in philosophy and science. At the least, it’s piqued my curiosity, because metaphysics is that one area of philosophy I know so little about.

        • I believe you are correct that some of Church fathers’ metaphysics can be traced to Aristotle(e.g. Aquinas), Plato (e.g. Augustine) and Platonic-Augustinian (e.g. Anselm). Important to note is that they did not pocket everything, but what they believe to be in line with Scripture.

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