Thursday, January 21, 2016

Exegetical Notes on Divine Kenosis (God’s “Emptying”)

Theologian (and friend) Tom Oord just sent me his new bestselling book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, and I’ve been happily reading it. Tom promotes the concept of “essential kenosis” in God. For him, kenosis is “not so much about how God became incarnate as to understand God’s nature in light of incarnate love” (156).

This led me to reflect on the Greek word kenosis and what it means in the New Testament. I have to admit I’m not yet sure how what follows would affect Oord’s project directly--perhaps that connection will appear in a subsequent post--nonetheless, I have discovered that theologians have often misunderstood kenosis in the key passage, Philippians 2:7 because they have not taken Paul’s rhetorical structure seriously. (I have not yet seen a commentary on Philippians that engages the structural set-up and denouement for kenosis, but one exists, let me know.)

The Greek word kenosis only occurs five times in the New Testament, where it means in
Philippians 2:7 (which I’ll quote below), “empty” or “make empty”; “to make void” (Romans 4:14; 1 Corinthians 1:17); and “to cause a thing to be seen to be empty, hollow, or false” (1 Corinthians 9:15; 2 Corinthians 9:3). Only in Philippians is kenosis about Christ. Since this one passage has been central to kenotic theologies, the context is critical for the meaning of the word.

In Philippians 2, Paul moves from kenodoxian conceit or two words, “empty glory” (3) to ekenosen “emptyied” (7) to doxan (“glory” in this case, God’s) (11). So just to be obvious, Paul takes a compound word, kenodoxian and breaks it into two words in their related grammatical forms, ekenosen and doxian. This structure has interpretive (or more precisely, exegetical) payoff. 

I’ll have to quote the passage at length (with those three words in bold) so you can see it.
3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
 6   who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
 7   but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
 8   he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9    Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
 10       so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 11       and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

If you’re wondering where all this leads, here’s the bottom line: this passage is primarily about serving—not seeking our own way—for the purpose of creating true community. In a phrase,
Be like Christ—Don’t seek empty glory, but empty yourself of privilege, and God will be glorified.

No comments: