A Brief History Of The Kenosis Theory

KENOTICISM, from the Gk. kenōsis, meaning (self-) ‘emptying’ (used in Phil. 2:6–7), refers to a number of related Christological theories concerning the status of the divine in the incarnate Christ. While the term is found in a number of patristic writers and formed a key point of controversy between the Lutheran theological faculties of Tübingen and Giessen in the 17th century, kenoticism is usually associated with a group of German theologians in the mid-19th century: G. Thomassius (1802–75), F. H. R. von Frank (1827–94) and W. F. Gess (1819–91) and a group of British theologians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Charles Gore, H. R. Mackintosh, Frank Weston (1871–1924), P. T. Forsyth and O. C. Quick (1885–1944).
The German kenoticists took the idea of self-emptying beyond its usual bounds of voluntary self-restraint of the divine nature by the God-man (the position of the Giessen faculty). Instead they believed that the divine Logos limited itself in the act of incarnation. The actual theories varied. Thomassius separated the metaphysical attributes, omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience, from the moral attributes, love and holiness. The Logos gave up the former while retaining the latter. Other German kenoticists (Frank and Gess), however, took more radical positions, which stripped Jesus of any of the attributes of divinity and called into question the use of the term ‘incarnation’.

The British kenoticists had a more positive orientation. Although often accused of developing kenoticism simply as a means of accommodating the results of biblical criticism by admitting the possibility of human ignorance in Jesus, it would be more true to say that British kenoticists, under the impact of a more historical reading of the gospels, came to the conclusion that traditional Christologies did not do justice to Jesus’ human life. Thus, it was the gospel records of the human and limited consciousness of Jesus that the British kenoticists asserted over the strongly docetic dogmatic tradition. Among the individual kenoticists the actual manner in which the divine self-emptying was believed to have occurred varied, but in general the emphasis was on the gracious character of the divine condescension and not on the precise metaphysical explanation of the act.

The current status of kenoticism is difficult to assess. On the one hand, although kenoticism is not a popular way of expressing the nature of the incarnation among conservative Christians, it should be noted that many of the major themes of the British kenoticists have been incorporated into modern evangelical Christologies. The reality of Jesus’ temptations, his single (as opposed to double) consciousness, and the depth of pathos of the cry of dereliction from the cross are universally affirmed today. In the 19th century these were often considered part of the kenoticists’ heretical innovations. On the other hand, modern evangelicalism is justifiably sceptical of any metaphysical speculation concerning the process of incarnation and sees the use of kenotic language as almost always inviting such speculation.

P. Dawe, The Form of a Servant: A Historical Analysis of the Kenotic Motif (Philadelphia, 1963); P. T. Forsyth, The Person and Place of Christ (London, 1909); O. C. Quick, Doctrines of the Creed (London, 1938).

—Sinclair B. Ferguson and J.I. Packer eds., New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 364.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. I grew up evangelical, learning that if Jesus really was God (he was) then he knew what God knew, and any apparent limitations read in the gospels were either due to misunderstandings on the readers part, or Jesus was feigning ignorance for educational purposes.
    Now, I just finished reading ‘Jesus on every page’, where the author marvels at what it must have been like for the young Jesus to read scripture and actually learn things about himself and his mission. Is the post claiming this latter perspective was considered heresy at some point?

Comments are closed.