Philippians 2:5-11, The Kenosis

Philippians 2:5-11, The Kenosis

Rodney J. Decker

[2013 note: the text below becomes illegible part way through the article; until I have time to fix it, use this pdf link to a 2013 updated version instead. There is also a related blog post here.]


Summary: The incarnation of Jesus Christ is often described in terms of the “kenosis” (usually translated “to empty”)–a term that comes from the Greek word κενόω in Philippians 2:5-11. This article summarizes the semantics and theology of the text from the perspective of evangelical theology, concluding that Jesus did not “empty” himself of anything. Rather Paul’s statement refers to Jesus–who was and is fully equal with God in nature–veiling his preincarnate glory and voluntarily humbling himself by accepting existence in the form of humanity for the purposes of providing salvation.

I. Background

“Kenotic theology is a theology that focuses on the person of Christ in terms of some form of self-limitation by the pre-existent Son in his becoming man.” EDT, 600

A. Beginnings of kenotic theology

Germany:1860-80; England:1890-1910

Gottfried Thomasius (1802-75), German Lutheran
The major concerns of these theologians was three-fold.

  • How to explain the full humanity of Christ. (The Gospel record portrays a real man with human limitations-growth, hunger, thirst, learning.)
  • How to explain that God truly was in Christ and maintain one person  (e.g., man learns; God = omniscient)
  • How could Jesus be God & man without postulating two centers of consciousness (& thus not really like us)?

On this point Thomasius says, First, that if the Eternal Son, after the assumption of humanity, retained his divine perfections and prerogatives, He did not become man, nor did He unite Himself with humanity. He hovered over it; and included it as a larger circle does a smaller. But there was no real contact or communication. Secondly, if at the moment of the incarnation the divine nature in the fullness of its being and perfection was communicated to the humanity, then Christ could not have had a human existence. The historical life is gone; and all bond of relationship and sympathy with us is destroyed. Thirdly, the only way in which the great end in view could be answered was that God Himself by a process of depotentiation, or self-limitation, should become man; that He should take upon Himself a form of existence subject to the limitations of time and space, and pass through the ordinary and regular process of human development, and take part in all the sinless experiences of a human life and death. (Hodge, ST, 2:434)

“All forms of classical orthodoxy either explicitly reject or reject in principle Kenotic Theology. This is because God must be affirmed to be changeless; any concept of the incarnation that would imply change would mean that God would cease to be God.” (EDT, 601)

B. Various explanations

1. Less conservative views

1. Christ had a human soul, to which the Logos imparted his divinity, little-by-little until he became completely divine. (= gradual incarnation, Dorner, who was an opponent of the Kenotic theologians)

2. Laid aside his deity which was then restored at the ascension (Gess and Beecher, cf. summary in Hodge, ST, 2:435 f). Takes μορφή as = divine nature &/or essence. This is also referred to as “incarnation by divine suicide.”

3. “Abandoned certain prerogatives of the divine mode of existence in order to assume the human,” e.g., omniscience; μορφή is defined as God’s “permanent characteristics” (Gore, The Incarnation of Son/God, 170f). Others explain that he surrendered the external, physical attributes of omniscience, though retaining the attributes of love and truth (A. M. Fairbairn, The Place of Christ . . . , 475-78). This was also held by Thomasius (Hodge, ST, 2:434), Delitzsch, and H. Crosby.

4. He lived a double life from two, non-communicating life centers. As God, he continued his trinitarian and providential existence, and as man he was united with a human nature. He did not know consciously anything of his divine, trinitarian existence (Martensen; cf. Berkhouwer [?], 328).

5. He disguised his deity and attributes, not by giving them up, but by limiting them to a time-form appropriate to a human mode of existence (eternal form > temporal form). His attributes could only be expressed in relation to the (human) time and space that his human form could experience (Ebrard; cf. A. B. Bruce, Humiliation of Christ, 152ff).

2. More conservative views

a. “Old Orthodoxy” (Strong’s desig., ST, 704)
He gave up the use of the attributes (cf. Carson, FD&FPJ, 35).
b. He acted as if he did not possess divine attributes (Anselm).

c. He gave up the independent exercise of the divine attributes (Strong, ST, 703).
He did not give up the attributes nor their use.

He only exercised the divine attributes as directed by the Holy Spirit for the purpose of his Messianic/Redemptive mission.

μορφή = “that independent exercise of powers and prerogatives of Deity which constitutes his ‘equality with God'” (Strong, ST, 706).
d. He limited himself to the voluntary non-use of the attributes (Walvoord, JCL, 143-44, although he also uses the phrase “independent exercise of attributes” in his summary!).

e. D. A. Carson (FD&FPJ, 37) modifies: “abandoned some substantial measure of independence in the use of his divine prerogatives”

II. Key Christological questions

  • When and how did Christ exist in “the μορφή of God?
  • Was Christ “equal” with God; did he not desire to be “equal with God”; did Christ remain “equal with God” or forfeit his equality with God?
  • Of what, if anything, did Christ “empty himself” (κενόω)?
  • How did the human ὁμοίωμα σχήμα μορφή affect Christ’s person/nature?
  • Does Christ still possess a human ὁμοίωμα σχήμα μορφή

III. Key meaning of key words

A. The meaning of μορφή (“form”)

1. Meaning based on classical Greek philosophy: “attributes”

Lightfoot is a classic example of those who base the meaning of μορφή on Greek philosophy. He explains that it refers to “the specific character” (129); that “μορφή must apply to the attributes of the Godhead” (132). “In Gk philosophical literature, μορφή acquires a fixed and central place in the thought of Aristotle. For him the term becomes equal to a thing’s essence (οὐσια) or nature (φύσις).”{1}
For years I tried . . . to maintain the view of Lightfoot that Paul here uses μορφή with the sense it had acquired in Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotelian, and which Murray speaks of as “existence form . . . the sum of those characterizing qualities that make a thing the precise thing that it is.” Lightfoot wrote: “though μορφή is not the same as φύσις οὐσια, yet the possession of the μορφή involves participation in the οὐσια also for μορφή implies not the external accidents but the essential attributes.” But I have had to conclude that there is really very little evidence to support the conclusion that Paul uses μορφή in such a philosophical sense here and that my determination to hold on to that interpretation was really rooted in its attractiveness theologically.{2}

2. Meaning based on the LXX: “visible form”

A much more likely context in which to understand μορφή is biblical Greek. Phil. 2:6, 7 are the only two occurrences of μορφή in the NT{3}, so there is no NT context that will help. Instead theLXX text must be used. There are four uses there: Judg. 8:18; Job 4:16; Isa. 44:13; Dan. 3:19.{4} Although this does not represent a large number of uses,{5} it does provide a consistent picture of the use of μορφή. In each instance the word refers to the visible form of the individual so described, not to his essential attributes. “Meager though the biblical evidence is, it is sufficient to make a prima facie case for the reference to a visible manifestation.”{6}

B. The meaning of ἰσος (“equal”)

The best parallel with the use of ἰσος in reference to Jesus is John 5:17-18.{7}

oJ de; ?hsou'” ajpekrivnato aujtoi'”, ? pathvr mou e{w” a[rti ejrgavzetai, kajgw; ejrgavzomai. 18dia; tou’to ou\n ma’llon ejzhvtoun aujto;n oiJ ?oudai’oi ajpoktei’nai, o{ti ouj movnon e[luen to; savbbaton, ajlla; kai; patevra i[dion e[legen to;n qeovn i[son eJauto;n poiw’n tw’/ qew’/.

Augustine comments to the effect that the Jews understand what the Arians [and their descendants the J.W.s!] cannot seem to grasp: that Jesus claimed to be truly God. “In 5:18 i[so” [ISOS] expresses . . . the equality of dignity, will and nature which the later term oJmoouvsio” [hOMOOUSIOS] was designed to defend. . . . it denotes an equality which is both essential and perfect.” (TDNT 3:353). “At Phil. 2:6 the i[sa has all the significance of the concept of equality in Jn. 5:18″ (Ibid.). The theological questions raised by Phil. 2 “can be answered only in light of the i[sa ei\nai qew’/ [ISA EINAI QEWi]. Christ was and is equal to God by nature. This equality is a possession which He can neither renounce nor lose” (ibid.).

C. The meaning of aJrpagmov”

This ambiguous phrase “has created a literature far more extensive than it probably deserves”!{8} The word group of which aJrpagmov” [hARPAGMOS] is a part seems to convey ideas that are totally out of character with the context of Phil. 2: robbery, plunder, greediness, swindler, rape, booty, stolen, to seize hastily, to be a thief, etc. It is the attempt to make these meanings suitable in a Christological reference that has engendered much of the confusion over the text.

Two primary explanations have been offered for this word.{9} 1) Res rapta, equality with God was his by right and by nature and was not a theft, i.e., he did not steal his position unjustly. This takes aJrpagmov”[hARPAGMOS] in an active sense to mean “robbery, snatching.” 2) Res rapienda, equality with God was not viewed by Christ as something to be seized; i.e., he was not equal with God and did not make any “snatching effort” to achieve that position. (Cf. NEB, “he did not think to snatch at equality with God.”) This is a passive sense, “something to be seized.”{10}

Despite the popularity of these explanations, there is a third option that makes much better sense of the passage and also recognizes that there is an idiom involved. This position is that oujc aJrpagmo;n hJghvsato [OUX hARPAGMOS hHGASATO] is part of a stereotyped, idiomatic expression in Koine Greek. It has been explained most fully in Hoover’s 1968 dissertation at Harvard and is summarized in HTR (see bibliog.). The essence of the idiom is as follows.

  • When aJrpagmov” [hARPAGMOS] occurs as a predicate accusative with any of the following verbs, it is an idiomatic expression: nomivzw, hJgevomai, poievw, and tivqhmi [NOMIZW, hHGEOMAI, POIEW, TIQHMI]. (Here the relevant phrase is aJrpagmo;n hJghvsato [hAPRAGMON hHGHSATO].)
  • When aJrpagmov” [hARPAGMOS] occurs in this combination as an idiom it does not have the same sense as the aJrpagmov” [hARPAGMOS] word group has in other contexts; i.e., there is no connotation of theft or violence.
  • aJrpagmov” [hARPAGMOS] and a{rpagma [hARPAGMA] are interchangeable forms in this idiom. The –mo” [-MOS] ending is a rare form (not used in LXX and only here in NT); –ma [-MA] is the more common form (though only used 17 x in LXX). As a result, the background for the idiomatic use must come from extra-biblical Hellenistic Greek.

These three factors result in the following idiomatic translation of Phil. 2:6, “he did not regard being equal with God as something to use for his own advantage.”

D. The meaning of kenovw

There are two semantic categories for the kenovw [KENOW] word group (other words in this group include keno”, kenw'”, kevnwma, ajpovkeno”, and ejkkenovw [KENOS, KENWS, KENWMA, APOKENOS, EKKENOW]). The listings below phrase the two categories in terms of how the verb kenovw [KENOW] would be translated in Phil. 2.

1. “to empty”
Jer. 14:2, the cities of Judah are emptied (kenovw [KENOW]; NIV, “languish”)

Jer. 15:9, a mother of a large family loses all her children in war (kenovw; she is emptied; NIV, “will grow faint”)

Gen. 24:20, Rebecca empties her jar of water (ejkkenow [EKKENOW])
2 Chron. 24:11, a money chest is emptied (ejkkenow [EKKENOW])

P Oxy VIII.1082 Fr. Iii.5ff (ii AD), a god empties “of his swinish wealth the dirty usurer” [kenovw [KENOW]; see text and transl. in MM, 340]

BGU I.277 (ii/iii AD) corn is “unloaded” [kenovw [KENOW]; Ibid.]

Phil. 2:7 (RV, ASV, NASB), “emptied himself”
If this is what it means in Phil. 2:6, the question that must be asked is, of what did Jesus empty himself? This question is answered by the various kenotic theologians as consisting of: his deity, his attributes, themorfh’/ qeou’ [MORFH QEOU], his being i[sa qew’/ [ISA QEWi], or (by more conservative theologians) the use of his attributes (“voluntary exercise of . . .” or some variation thereof). But all of these pose major theological problems that seriously affect the person of Christ. (The last option listed has frequently been qualified in fundamental and evangelical circles in an attempt to avoid this problem.)

2. “He made himself nothing”{11}
1 Cor. 9:15, “my boasting no one will make nothing/void”

Rom. 4:14, “faith has been made nothing” (NIV: “has no value”)–and we never ask, “Of what was faith emptied?”

1 Cor. 1:17, “lest the cross of Christ should be made nothing” (note that the NIV creates an unnecessary dilemma here by translating kenovw [KENOW] as “empty”–which they solve by supplying an object not in the text: “of its power.”)

2 Cor. 9:3, “lest our boasting about you should be nothing” (NIV’s idiomatic translation here is good: “prove hollow.”)

Phil. 2:7 (KJV), “made himself of no reputation”; (NIV), “made himself nothing”
The choice between these two options seems fairly obvious. All the other instances of kenovw [KENOW] are from Paul, which would seem nearly conclusive; i.e., translate it here in the same way that Paul uses it elsewhere. (The list above includes every use in the NT.)

V. Conclusion

Jesus did not empty himself of anything. During the incarnation he still possessed the morfh/’ qeou’ [MORFH QEOU] and he was still i[sa qew’/ [ISA QEWi]. The text says absolutely nothing about his attributes. How did he make himself nothing? Note the following participles (that are probably used instrumentally): morfh;n douvlou labwvn, ejn oJmoiwvmati ajnqrwvpwn genovmeno” [MORFHN DOULOU LABWN, EN hOMOIWMATI ANQRWPWN GENOMENOS], “by taking the form of a servant [and] by becoming in the likeness of humanity.” In that condition he did not manifest the morfh’/ qeou’ [MORFH QEOU] outwardly. That he still possessed it, however, may be seen in the transfiguration. The morfh;n douvlou [MORFH DOULOU] served as a temporary veil cloaking the morfh’/ qeou’ [MORFH QEOU].

VI. Select Bibliography

Hoover, Roy W. “The Harpagmos Enigma: A Philological Solution.” Harvard Theological Review 64 (1971): 95-119. [This is a summary of Hoover’s Th.D. diss. at Harvard, 1968.]

N. T. Wright, “Harpagmos and the Meaning of Philippians 25-11,” Journal of Theological Studies, 37 (1986): 321-352.

Strimple, Robert B. “Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Studies: Some Exegetical Conclusions.” Westminster Theological Journal 41 (1978): 247-68.

Feinberg, Paul D. “The Kenosis and Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Analysis of Phil. 2:6-11.” Trinity Journal 1 (1980): 21-46.

Thomas, Thomas A. “The Kenosis Question.” The Evangelical Quarterly (1970): 142-51.



{1} Feinberg, “Kenosis,” 29. Abott-Smith’s Lexicon also appeals to this background: “in philos. lang. the specific character or essential form (Arist.)” (s.v. μορφή). Cf. TDNT 4:744.

{2} Strimple, “Phil. 2,” 259. Feinberg, likewise, notes that “Frankly, the attractiveness of the Gk philosophical interpretation of μορφή is that it gives the theologian about as strong an affirmation of the deity of Christ as is possible. One must, however, be careful that he does not read his theological convictions into the text when they are not there” (“Kenosis,” 29-30).

{3} There is one other use in the ending of Mark that, while noncanonical, does illustrate the meaning of the word (16:12).

{4} Judg. 8:18, “each one with the bearing of a prince”; Job 4:16, “a form stood before my eyes”; Isa. 44:13, “he shapes it in the form of a man”; Dan. 3:19, “his attitude [formally: the form of his face] toward them changed.” (There is a v.l. in the last ref.; Rahlf’s ed. reads μορφή.) Aquilla’s translation also uses μορφή in Isa. 52:14; 53:2.

{5} Both Strimple (260) and Feinberg (29) note this potential problem. Feinberg also notes that in each of the four passages μορφή translates a different Hebrew word (‘to’ar’, ‘miunah’, ‘tabinit’, ‘tsilem’). This is not a problem so long as there is a common semantic field.

{6} Strimple, “Phil. 2,” 260.

{7} See TDNT 3:352-54 for a good discussion of this. All the quotations above come from this source.

{8} Silva, Phil., 116.

{9} The phrases that follow are the traditional names given to each position. They come from the Latin word rapere, “to seize.”

{10} There is an alternative, orthodox interpretation sometimes used to explain aJrpagmov” [hARPAGMOS] in a passive sense: “he did not regard his equality with God as a prized possession.” This comes closer to the truth.

{11} BAGD subdivides this category into two: destroy; render void, of no effect (1 Cor. 9:15; pass. Rom. 4:14; 1 Cor. 1:17) and deprive of its justification; pass. lose its justification (2 Cor. 9:3). These meanings are metaphorical uses of the unmarked, nonmetaphorical meaning to empty. Hermas uses the keno” word group extensively: “For being empty (k.) himself he giveth empty (k.) answers to empty (k.) enquirers; for whatever enquiry may be made of him, he answereth according to the emptiness (kevnwma [KENWMA]) of the man” (Hm 11.3). ” In the next place, it [an earthly spirit; i.e., a false prophet] never approacheth an assembly of righteous men; but avoideth them, and cleaveth to the doubtful-minded and empty (k.), and prophesieth to them in corners, and deceiveth them, speaking all things in emptiness (kenw'” [KENWS]) to gratify their desires; for they too are empty (k.) whom it answereth. For the empty (k.) vessel placed together with the empty (k.) is not broken, but they agree one with the other. But when he comes into an assembly full of righteous men who have a Spirit of deity, and intercession is made from them, that man is emptied (kenovw [KENOW]), and the earthly spirit fleeth from him in fear, and that man is struck dumb and is altogether broken in pieces, being unable to utter a word” (Hm 11.13-14). The last occurrence (the verb form) could be translated using BAGD’s last gloss: “loses his justification”; i.e., his supposed prophecy is shown to lack credibility in the face of genuine prophecy. This is a metaphorical use since there was nothing in him (even something metaphysical such as a thought or prophecy) that is “emptied.” His pretentions are simply shown to be nothing: uncredible, worthless words. (Translations of Hermas, Mandates from the 1891 Lightfoot/ Harmer edition [1984 Baker reprint; there is a newer, 2d ed. 1992 Baker reprint with translation revised by M. Holmes] of The Apostolic Fathers, 434-36; Greek text, 334-36.)

Note: This document contains a considerable amount of Greek text using an expensive, proprietary Greek font. If you do not have it installed on your computer, it will appear as gibberish, though if you pick out the basic consonants and vowels, it should be intelligible if you know Greek. I’ve added “b-greek style” transliteration to make it more legible for those who don’t. [Some day I need to convert this Greek text to Unicode…!] There is also an Adobe Acrobat .pdf formatted file available that maintains the fonts regardless of what fonts you have or don’t have on your system.

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