Berkhof Contra Kenosis

The Kenotic Theories. A remarkable attempt was made in the so-called Kenosis doctrine to improve on the theological construction of the doctrine of the Person of Christ. The term Kenosis is derived from Philippians 2:7, which says that Christ “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant.” The Greek word here translated “emptied” is ekenosen, the aorist of kenoo. A misinterpretation of this passage became the Scriptural basis for the Kenosis doctrine, along with 2 Cor. 8:9. These passages were interpreted as teaching that Christ at the incarnation emptied or divested Himself of His divinity. But there are serious objections to this interpretation: (1) as Dr. Warfield has shown the rendering “emptied Himself” is contrary to the usual meaning of the term “to make oneself of no account” (Christology and Criticism, p. 375); and (2) the implied object of the action expressed is not Christ’s divinity, but His being on an equality with God in power and glory. The Lord of glory made Himself of no account by becoming a servant. However, the Kenoticists base on this passage and on 2 Cor. 8:9 the doctrine that the Logos literally became, that is, was changed into a man by reducing (depotentiating) Himself, either wholly or in part, to the dimensions of a man, and then increased in wisdom and power until at last He again assumed the divine nature.

This theory evidently resulted from a double motive, namely, the desire (1) to maintain the reality and integrity of the manhood of Christ; and (2) to throw into strong relief the exceeding greatness of Christ’s humiliation in that He, being rich, for our sakes became poor. It assumed several forms. According to Thomasius the divine Logos, while retaining His immanent or moral attributes of absolute power or freedom, holiness, truth and love, divested Himself temporarily of His relative attributes of omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience, but after the resurrection resumed these attributes. The theory of Gess, which was more absolute and consistent, and also more popular, is to the effect that the Logos at the incarnation literally ceased from His cosmic functions and His eternal consciousness, and reduced Himself absolutely to the conditions and limits of human nature, so that His consciousness became purely that of a human soul. It comes very close to the view of Apollinaris. Ebrard, a Reformed scholar, assumed a double life of the Logos. On the one hand the Logos reduced Himself to the dimensions of a man and possessed a purely human consciousness, but on the other hand He also retained and exercised His divine perfections in the trinitarian life without any interruption. The same ego exists at once in the eternal and in the temporal form, is both infinite and finite. And Martensen postulates in the Logos during the time of His humiliation a double life from two non-communicating centers. As the Son of God, living in the bosom of the Father, He continued His trinitarian and cosmic functions, but as the depotentiated Logos He knew nothing of these functions and knew Himself to be God only in the sense in which such knowledge is possible to the faculties of manhood.

This theory, once very popular in one form or another, and still defended by some, has now lost a great deal of its charm. It is subversive of the doctrine of the Trinity, contrary to that of the immutability of God, and at variance with those passages of Scripture which ascribe divine attributes to the historical Jesus. In the most absolute and most consistent form it teaches what La Touche calls “incarnation by divine suicide.”

—Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1949), 124–26.


a. The theory is based on the pantheistic conception that God and man are not so absolutely different but that the one can be transformed into the other. The Hegelian idea of becoming is applied to God, and the absolute line of demarcation is obliterated.

b. It is altogether subversive of the doctrine of the immutability of God, which is plainly taught in Scripture, Mal. 3:6; Jas. 1:17, and which is also implied in the very idea of God. Absoluteness and mutability are mutually exclusive; and a mutable God is certainly not the God of Scripture.

c. It means a virtual destruction of the Trinity, and therefore takes away our very God. The humanized Son, self-emptied of His divine attributes, could no longer be a divine subsistence in the trinitarian life.

d. It assumes too loose a relation between the divine mode of existence, the divine attributes, and the divine essence, when it speaks of the former as if they might very well be separated from the latter. This is altogether misleading, and involves the very error that is condemned in connection with the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.

e. It does not solve the problem which it was intended to solve. It desired to secure the unity of the person and the reality of the Lord’s manhood. But. surely, the personal unity is not secured by assuming a human Logos as coexistent with a human soul. Nor is the reality of the manhood maintained by substituting for the human soul a depotentiated Logos. The Christ of the Kenotics is neither God nor man. In the words of Dr. Warfield His human nature is “just shrunken deity.”
The Kenotic theory enjoyed great popularity in Germany for a while, but has now practically died out there. When it began to disappear in Germany, it found supporters in England in such scholars as D. W. Forrest, W. L. Walker, P. T. Forsyth, Ch. Gore, R. L. Ottley, and H. R. Mackintosh. It finds very little support at the present time.

L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing Co., 1938), 328–29.

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  1. To be clear: the questionable/heretical feature here is about Christ setting aside his actual divinity. What is not in question here is that, in the incarnation, Christ did willingly set aside some of his divine power and glory. Is this right?
    Thank you

    • BJ,

      Usually our writers talk about Christ setting aside voluntarily some of his divine prerogatives. We talk about his incarnation under “humiliation.”

  2. Good to hear from Berkhof again. Sorry I sold the Systematic Theology I once owned. Thanks for this post!

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