Kenosis: Definition and Controversy

Derek Ouellette —  June 5, 2010

The word Kenosis is taken from the Greek and means “to empty” or “make empty”.

This theological term is taken from the verb in Philippians 2:7 which says that “he [Christ] emptied himself” (NRSV).


The controversy revolving around this theological term is to what extend did Christ “empty” himself. Often the term is used as a way of denoting his surrendering the attributes of God such as omniscience. When Christ became man he left his divinity behind and relied exclusively on the Holy Spirit so that he might be obedient to the Father.

On the other hand are scholars who don’t see the contextual support for this doctrine in Philippians 2:6-12. For these scholars, the passage simply teaches that Jesus “emptied” himself in the sense that he became human in order to die on the cross. Linda Garrett writes:

Speculation about lost or negated attributes has no textual support. [Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible p.763]

What about you? To what extent do you believe Christ “emptied” himself?

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • xTraex

    It does seem that there isn’t anything to lead us to believe that Christ emptied himself of his divine attributes. I can only speculate that maybe there’s something we’re missing culturally about how the term was used. But then again, how can one so holy be tempted with sin, why would the son have to remain faithful to the father if he and his father were one in the sense that they were still sharing attributes? And what of his temptation? If still possessing all of his attributes, shouldn’t he have seen it coming? SN: You’ll have to excuse me if I’m off anywhere, I still don’t quite KNOW my scripture.

  • Derek Ouellette

    Thanks xTraex,

    I agree that when I read Phil 2:6-11 I don’t see much to suggest that Jesus emptied himself of all of his divine attributes except maybe in verse 6.

    But when I read those verses in light of the Gospels (which, when you think about it, really fills in the details of this poem), it seems that perhaps he did. At times the Father seems to know things which he does not, at other times he seems to know things that would otherwise be unknowable.

    Maybe it could be argued that any supernatural “knowledge” which he did receive came with the help of the Spirit? It is interesting that he makes the statement several times that he can do nothing on his own.

    Your question are good: How can someone so holy be tempted with sin? Why would the son have to remain faithful to the Father? Wouldn’t it be assumed? Or, as the book of Hebrews puts it, how is it that the Son was “made perfect” (Heb 5:9)?

  • Michael

    This translation was changed from the 1984 NIV to today’s NIV, simply because it contradicted the mainstream view of the trinity. The word for robbery was referring to an act that Jesus would not consider. Satan wanted equality with God, and actually considered it as something he could take (rob) from God. Jesus was obedient and humble, not seeing equality with God as something to be taken by force.
    There were some good questions brought up in the earlier posts.

    If we understand that Christ is the son of GOD, this verse will make perfect sense, and lines up with the rest of God’s word. Look at what God’s word says about the relationship of God and his Son.

    1 Cor. 15:24 “Then the end will come, when he (Jesus) hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.”
    1 Cor. 15:27-28
    “Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. NIV

    Paul took time to specify that God will never be put under Christ, but that Christ would be made subject to God. If Christ was God, this verse would need to be removed from God’s word, or changed as Phil. 2:6 has been.