Kenosis is the act of self-emptying epitomized by the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity and his living out an incarnate life of self-giving that extends through death into his Resurrection and Ascension. In order to ground the unfolding of this blog in that foundation, I will begin by posting in sections my research and reflection on this topic. These posts consist of adaptations of a research paper completed in 2002 for my graduate theology course in Christology.
Saint Paul, in his letter to the church he founded at Philippi, employs a confessional song that proclaims the glory, humility, obedience, death and exaltation of Jesus. He uses it in order to urge the members to serve one another in humility, just as Paul has done, in anticipation of the glory that is to come. The hymn, at Philippians 2:6-11, is generally agreed to have come from the worship of Palestinian church within the thirty years between the crucifixion and resurrection and the letter’s composition (Martin 21).
In order to provide a complete text of the passage for reference, this is the Greek text including the introductory verse 5, from the United Bible Society’s corrected fourth edition:
5 τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ, 6 ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ 7 ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών, ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος: καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος 8 ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι θανάτου, θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ 9 διὸ καὶ ὁ θεὸς αὐτὸν ὑπερύψωσεν καὶ ἐχαρίσατο αὐτῷ τὸ ὄνομα τὸ ὑπὲρ πᾶν ὄνομα, 10 ἵνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ ἐπουρανίων καὶ ἐπιγείων καὶ καταχθονίων 11 καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσηται ὅτι κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός
The New American Bible gives this translation:
5 Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, 6 Who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped, 7 Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, 8 he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. 9 Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This paper will examine, from a Catholic Christological point of view, some of the meanings associated with Greek words e`auto.n evke,nwsen, “he emptied himself,” at verse 7, as those interpretations reflect changing ideas about the Person of Jesus. Reference will necessarily be made to the broader theological content of the Philippian hymn and to its implications for the life of the Church.
In the book Carmina Christi, R. P. Martin quotes A. B. Bruce, who wrote in 1876 that the diversity of opinion on the six verses of the song was “enough to fill the student with despair, and afflict him with intellectual paralysis” (20). Writing in 1967, Martin found the literature far vaster by that time. As of 2002, entire new perspectives have appeared from the fields of feminist theology and Catholic-Buddhist dialog on the kenotic passage of v. 7 alone. Faced with such a wealth of material, I have had to limit observations to three main categories of interpretation. Following comments about the words themselves, their use in sacred text and the meanings ascribed to them, the paper will consider what commentators and exegetes from the patristic period through St. Thomas Aquinas had to say about the self-emptying, the kenosis, of Jesus at his Incarnation. The second period encompasses the development of kenotic theology, per se, among German and English Reformed theologians from the mid-nineteenth into the twentieth century, when theology was increasingly displaced by sociology as the hermeneutic principle. The third grouping of contemporary thinking focuses on feminist theology and on the ideas of certain Zen writers who are in dialog with Catholicism. In closing, I will offer my personal reflections on the continuing kenosis of Jesus into humanity and our restoration and exaltation in him before the Father.
Kenosis and Early Commentary
The Greek verb translated here as “he emptied” has as its root form keno,w. The root verb carries two general meanings in ancient use: a. to empty or drain, or to be left empty, deserted; b. to nullify, to make or become worthless or of no account. Liddell and Scott assigns the latter meaning to New Testament usage and the former to classical sources and the Old Testament (750). This is in keeping with the translation used in traditional and recent English Bibles for v. 7a, “made himself of no reputation” (KJV), “made himself nothing” (NEB and NIV). Thayer adds the sense of causing a thing to be seen to be empty or hollow, which he applies to the verb in 1 Cor 9, but not to Philippians, where he opts for the simple “emptied” (344). Theodore of Mopsuestia, alone among those quoted in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, did apply that sense of the word to Phil 2:7. Christ, in emptying himself, “concealed that dignity that was his. So he was deemed by onlookers to be what he seemed” (ACCS 242).
The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) identifies only one instance where “to make empty” has the literal sense of a. above, Phil 2:7. It excludes sense b., self-negation or denial on the basis of relationship with the sense of v. 8 “he humbled himself” (661). The other three occurrences of κενόω in the NT are found in 1 Cor 9:15, 2 Cor 9:3 and Rom 4:14, and all clearly carry the sense of invalidating or being made worthless. It is, however, this sense of nullifying that the New Interpreters Bible selects for v. 7, in order to contrast Christ’s right to hold onto what was his with his choice to abandon privilege.
In the Septuagint, κενόω verb forms are found only in Jeremiah: 14:2, “Judea has mourned and her gates are emptied” and 15:9, “She that bore seven [children] is spent.” A related Greek word is used for different Hebrew words with identical or analogous meanings, notably, “to pour,” as water from a pitcher. This word has various translations in modern versions of the Hebrew Old Testament, but an analysis is beyond the scope of this inquiry. The sense of κενόω in the early Church, particularly in the context of worship, would have come from its use in the Greek Old Testament, so this paper will not consider the Hebrew usages related to the concept “to empty.”
The earliest commentators generally regarded the emptying not as important in itself, but as pointing to a pre-existent divine Person who was the same person known in human form as the Lord Jesus Christ. Contrary to some modern interpreters, the Fathers held that the “subject of emptied is not the incarnate, but the pre-existent Lord” (Kittel 661). There was a range of interpretation, or at least differences in emphasis, among them as to what the pre-existent Son did, however. Origen, in On First Principles, and Hilary of Poitiers, in On the Trinity, read the passage as meaning the Son emptied himself of equality with the Father, while remaining truly God. Hilary struggled for words to describe how the Son let go of the form of God by “hiding within himself and being made empty in his own power. . . . He nonetheless used the resources of the evacuated power within him” (ACCS 244). Ambrosiaster and Marius Victorinus, in their commentaries on Philippians, described the kenosis as a withholding of power in seeming weakness or a momentary emptying of power in fulfilling “the meanest tasks” (243).
Gregory of Nyssa and Hilary describe what happened at the Incarnation as a contracting necessary to assume human nature. In Hilary’s words, he “contract[ed] himself even to conception” (Bettison 50). This image would resurface 1500 years later in the kenotic theology of Thomasius, but without Hilary’s and Gregory’s insistence that God the Son remained what he had always been.
That the Son was not so emptied as to become something other than who he was is a point made also by Gregory of Elvira in On the Faith. Gregory develops an image that recurs in Catholic hermeneutics: “When the sun is covered by a cloud its brilliance is suppressed but not darkened. . . . So too that man, whom our Lord Jesus Christ put on, being our Savior, which means God and the Son of God, does not lessen but momentarily hides the divinity in him” (ACCS 242). The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913 refers specifically to the kenosis as abasement that is an occultation of the Divinity simultaneous to the assumption of humanity.
When Thomas Aquinas analyzed this passage, he did not come at it through the Greek, but the Latin of the Vulgate which gave verses 6 and 7 as: “qui in forma Dei esset, non rapinam arbitratus est esse se aequalem Deo, sed semet ipsum exinanivit formam servi accipiens.” Here, as in Greek, the phrase for “he emptied himself,” “semet ipsum exinanivit,” is a strong one, both in the reflexive strengthened by “semet” and more so in the use of “exinanivit,” rather than simply “inanivit” (Simpson). Jerome chose to use this form only for the Philippian passage and Romans 4:14, a similarly strong passage. Throughout the Third Part of the Summa Theologiæ, Thomas maintains that nothing of the divine form was shed or lessened in the Incarnation. Specifically in 3a. 5, 1, he says, “The Son’s dignity is in no way diminished. . . . For the Son assumed a true body, not so as to become the form of a body. . . [but] in unity of person, with the distinctness of the natures kept intact.” He saw the strength of the phrase in what it said about the powerful action of the Son in his taking on our humanity, rather than in any divesting or nullifying of his own nature.
In his Commentary on the Letter to the Philippians, Thomas, consistent with the Summa, holds that Christ could not not retain the “forma Dei” and still be God. He could not deprive himself of anything pertaining to who he was. “For just as He descended from heaven, not that He ceased to exist in heaven, but because He began to exist in a new way on earth, so He also emptied Himself, not by putting off His divine nature, but by assuming a human nature” (80). This seems to be actually an increase, rather than a lessening, but since God is all fullness, Thomas contrasts the emptiness of the human nature assumed to the fullness of the one assuming it:
How beautiful to say that He emptied himself, for the empty is opposed to the full! For the divine nature is sufficiently full, because every perfection of goodness is there. But human nature and the soul are not full, but capable of fulness. . . . Therefore, human nature is empty. Hence he says, He emptied himself, because He assumed a human nature (80).
Reformed and Modern Kenotic Christology
The Reformed Churchmen of the Enlightenment age turned to the Philippian hymn as they began to ask “How can God really have assumed a human nature?” In their positivistic world, it seemed impossible for the fullness of divinity to exist within the constraints of human form. Or, rather, it seemed impossible for humanity to exist if full divinity were present. Something of the divine had to be given up in order to preserve the integrity of Jesus’ humanity. The Germans of the Reformed tradition and later the English developed a specifically kenotic theology, which would ultimately play out in the Christologies of Kung, Schillebeeckx, and Macquarrie, when kenosis became solely a post-incarnation event with the symbolic power of icon and example.
Gottfried Thomasius was the clearest voice to reason that a self-emptying was necessary in order to accomplish the Incarnation. In 1857, in his treatise “The Person of the Mediator,” he maintained the truth of the humanity of Jesus and the reality of his divinity in a “unity of person.” There had been a language shift, however, in the six hundred years since Thomas used the terminology of the fourth century. There had also been a separation from the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. These two factors yielded a Christology that used the same terms, but came to a far different conclusion about the self-emptying.
Thomasius wrote of Jesus “as one divine-human person. . . a unitary ego” which came into being, “the result of the Incarnation, the person of the God-man” (37-38). Although the one who became man in Christ pre-existed as “personal ego” and did not become an “utterly new person,” he did become “an historical person” (43). In order for this person to be whole, two problems had to be overcome. If the Son remained in his divine mode of being and action, while assuming humanity, he would have a double life, in which his consciousness would hover over, but not come together with his human mind. And if he imparted to human nature the fullness of his divinity, he would have “transfigured it into his divine mode of being and action,” stripping it of “the earthly limitation naturally inherent in it” (47). There would be no weakness in Jesus, no participation in the human historical condition, no creation of the historical person of Christ shown in the Gospels as like us in all things.
In order to solve this dilemma, something of the divine nature had to be let go of. Thomasius took up the Philippian hymn, which came to be regarded as the kenotic hymn, because it gave him the supporting text for the self-emptying of the Second Person of the Trinity. “He emptied himself” meant there was an actual divesting in which he gave up the outward expression of the glory he had with the Father in his divine form, renouncing the attributes of glory, which “he withdraws, so to speak, within himself. . . . in order at the end of his earthly career to take back again (also as man) the glory laid down.” Contrasting with Thomas Aquinas, he claimed in Beitrage, quoted by Welch, that “from the moment of unio hypostatica onward, as God-man he ceased, not to be God surely, but to exist in the divine mode” having it only in “potentia and no longer actu.” “The Logos retained neither a distinct being of his own nor a distinct knowledge of himself outside his humanity. He became man in the literal sense” (48-49). He no longer held the attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, or omnipresence.
Like other commentators who draw on the Gospel of John in illuminating this passage, Thomasius sees affirmation of the pre-existent glory of the Logos in John, but also finds in him a proof-text for its absence in the historical Jesus. That Jesus prayed, according to John 17.5, for the Father to glorify him with the glory he had with him before the world was created means that as Logos, he had that glory, and as Jesus, he no longer has it. Thomasius saw this prayer as prefiguring the exaltation of Phil 2:9, which occurs “by the operation of the Father on the humiliated one. . . as reward for demonstrated obedience.” The “surrendered mode of being and activity” is now taken back again by the incarnate one, “not [as] an increase in the hypostatic union. . . rather it is a transfiguring of the whole unitary person of the Lord” (78).
Another nineteenth century German Reform theologian, I. A. Dorner, critiqued Thomasius’ kenotic view which has “the dim feeling for the truth that starting from the persona does not lead to the goal, therefore it is believed that the Logos must above all be allowed to depotentiate himself, to become mere divine natura, and then to rise to actuality in unity with the human nature” (233). Dorner followed a line of thinking that tended to lose the unique person of Jesus Christ, God the Son. He rejected Thomasius’ view of the incarnate Logos in favor of one in which God the Logos united himself indissolubly with Jesus: “He has his being, his perfect revelation in this man and has become a living unity with (him)” (228). “Divine thoughts are thought in him by God as the Logos. . . and the God-man. . . perceives” (237-238). This seems to be a withholding of the Person within God and more of an impartation of divine nature or capacity or personality. There is a modalist quality to his language, even though he affirms the necessity of the Trinitarian doctrine
English theologians of the early twentieth century took up the kenosis as key to the historical reality of God made man in ways represented by P. T. Forsythe and A. E. Garvie. Forsythe, in Lecture 11 of The Congregational Union Lecture of 1909, took a view of the self-emptying of God the Son that was similar to Thomasius in that it involved a real action. He uses the term “krypsis” for a “conscious concealment of active divine glory for practical or strategic purposes” (294). The divine attributes are concealed in the mode of existence that is defined by human flesh. “When eternal enters time, omniscience becomes a discursive and successive knowledge, with the power to know all things only potential, enlarging to become actual” (307). This is his method of maintaining salvation by God as truly human in Jesus.
Neither krypsis nor kenosis entailed a loss of the inherent power of the Divinity. In fact, “it took the whole power of the Godhead to save: it was not the Son’s work alone; far less was it the work of any impaired Son” (319). He chose not to use classical Trinitarian terminology to refer to an incarnational relinquishing of divine nature, however, since then “it is not clear what is left in the way of identity or continuity. . . between the Eternal Son and the man Jesus” (307). In all justice, it must be noted that the Philippian hymn itself predated the classical definitions, which should not be read back into it. Forsythe, however, he preferred to speak about “modes of being” and a “new mode for divine attributes.” He draws an analogy between the kenosis and “reducing or obscuring self-consciousness by a drug voluntarily taken. The effective cause is not the drug, but the will to take it” (296). Although his point concerns the divine will, the overall image is not felicitous. In a happier analogy, he sees in the Incarnation a suppression of power and a contraction of consciousness similar to what humans experience when we “lose self in loving service. . . . and feel the clouding power of our physical nature” in which our original state “is recalled but in a dream” (299). Power is suppressed or transformed, but not lost.
There is a continuity between Incarnation and Crucifixion that is the continued willing of God to give himself. This is what God willed in allowing himself to be victimized by his creation. “He lives out a moral pleurosis by the very completeness of his kenosis, and he achieves the pleurosis in Resurrection and Ascension” (300).
Garvie, more the philosopher, saw a Hegelian “dialectic at work within God between fullness and self-limitation” or self-expression that was manifest in history in the self-emptying that was the Incarnation. (Kenosis) In his 1907 Studies in the Inner Life of Jesus, Garvie refers to the self-emptying of the Logos as part and parcel of the cosmic activity of God, expressed in organic unity with the personal life of Jesus. Instead of emptying, he uses self-sacrifice as descriptive of both the “human experience of Jesus” and “the consummation of the cosmical and historical existence and activity of the Logos.” Hence the humiliation he accepted “is not something alien to His very being, but inasmuch as He is holy love, is its clearest expression and completest exercise” (517-518). No depotentiation is required by this interpretation.
Like Dorner, Garvie’s frame of reference is the personality; he intentionally avoids using the term person, because of a shift in meaning which he believed had let Christian monotheism sink into tritheism (526). Personality is “the highest ethical term,” thus “the metaphysical reality of the union of God and man in Christ is most adequately. . . expressed as a personal union realized progressively in an ethical process” (520). When God emptied self in Christ, the action was an expression of the personality of the Logos, “the conception of God as self-limitation for self-revelation and self-communication” (525). This action is part of the progressive kenosis of God in the universe itself, from the moment of creation.
The relationship among creation, incarnation, the life of Christ, the life of the Church, and the fate of the universe is reprised in twentieth and twentieth century theologians. Fewer Catholic scholars regarded the kenosis as an incarnational event. John Murphy could write in 1952, “It is God as Son who is ever emptying Himself, and in the Incarnation the highest stage in the history of that divine kenosis is reached. Self-sacrifice is the capacity and the character of the eternal God” (465). The subtle reference to “God as Son” indicates the shift away from a true three-person Deity noted earlier. For all the power ascribed to it, an incarnation of a one-person God is necessarily limited. Dorner assessed the situation clearly a hundred years earlier when he wrote “The possibility of the incarnation would have to be denied from the side of God if he were only the abstractly simple monad” (215).
Theologians, perhaps sensing, if not stating, the logic of Dorner’s observation, focused attention on incarnation from the side of man, since they arguably had lost a grasp on the Trinity and therefore on the possibility that the Second Person of the Trinity could act in any meaningful way prior to the earthly life of Jesus. The locus of action was in the historical Jesus. In the developing culture of psychology, the personality further displaced the concept of Person in theological speculation. Jesus’ identity as God the Son seems to have been let go of, even before his divine nature slipped from the discussion. This perspective saw human personality and actions as somehow more important, or more understandable than a divine nature. Christology was no longer being anchored in revealed faith, whose classical terminology had no referents in the dominant academic language and epistemology.
When Jesus’ divinity came to be seen as a result of his humanity being filled with the Spirit of God or as a post-death exaltation into God, there was no basis for considering that anything “happened” by the will of God the Son in becoming flesh as Jesus of Nazareth. The self-emptying became something that happened in the life of the man Jesus, Spirit-filled or not, as he served in humility and obedience, a new Adam. James Macquarrie speaks for the vast majority of contemporary scholarship when he finds the kenotic Christology of the Germans and English:
no more than an episode in modern thinking about the person of Jesus Christ. . . . They wanted to cling to the classical framework, the starting point of which is the pre-existent Logos. They were still too cautious in asserting the full humanity of Jesus Christ and failed to appreciate that christology, if it was to escape from the docetic drift of centuries, had to be stood on its head. . . and begin once more from the humanity of Christ (250).
Divergent Postmodern Interpretations of Kenosis
Kenosis takes on a new life and a quite different character in the thought of Gianni Vattimo (b. 1936) presented in dialog with feminist theology. Marta Frascati-Lochhead’s 1998 consideration of kenosis in this regard makes the point that, to be useful in feminist theology, kenosis needs to be separated from the idea of self-sacrifice: “Sacrificial love is suspect because it is used as an ideological tool for the silencing of women” (161). Instead, the self-emptying of God in the Incarnation can be understood as freeing the deity of andromorphic projections, liberating multiple voices to speak of God in totally worldly terms. This is a secularizing of the Divinity which thereby reduces the metaphysical violence adhering to a patristic theology that focuses on a masculine-imaged Godhead.
In this view, the Second Person of the Trinity intentionally did not hold on to the masculine dominance, so that kenosis precisely means that the physical characteristics of the man Jesus are not definitive of God. Vattimo holds that Christianity is liberated to rethink the ancient myths and those of religions that “ecumenism has come to terms with” through “the incarnation of Jesus and therefore by the kenosis of God” (162). Jesus does not lead back to the Father, but grounds God in the world. “Grounding” may be an apt metaphor, since in Vattimo’s view, the incarnation is a de-potentiating of God, part of a progressive weakening that is a perfecting of God’s strength in or as the secular order. The self-emptying becomes an irresistible process, beyond our ability to objectify it.
Rosemary Reuther also portrays the self-emptying of God as a divine corrective to male dominance tied to a male-imaged God. In the introduction to Sexism and God-Talk, quoted in Frascati, Reuther has God say, “By calling me Father, Lord, and Ruler, they claim power to rule the earth as I rule the heavens . . . . In former times I have known other ways of being God . . . I must call to mind those ways again” (199-200). What is accomplished in the kenotic Incarnation is a weakening of Yahweh, God who has commanded “You shall have no other gods before me.” Emptied of this jealous Deity, God has come to be in a new way in Jesus. Reuther has Mary Magdalen proclaim “A new God is being born in our hearts to teach us to level the heavens and exalt the earth and create a new world without masters and slaves, rulers and subjects” (Frascati 200). Dorner’s caution cited above is prophetically borne out in this inadequate incarnation.
This interpretation of the kenosis certainly connects with the sense of humility evidenced in and by Jesus and held up by Paul as paradigmatic for the Church, but it is wide of the mark in expressing the Zeitgeist of the Incarnation and the life of faith. Too much is omitted and too much is implied. The index of Frascati’s book contains no references to “resurrection,” “ascension,” or “exaltation,” but has twenty under “death of God” (250).
Frascati’s discussion of kenosis and feminist theology brought in the writings of Masao Abe in support of the diminishment of the transcendent God, while faulting his “faithfulness to the text” of the Philippians hymn in its obvious call for self-sacrificing love (159). Abe, a disciple of Daisetz Suzuki, is the Zen Buddhist voice of dialog with Christianity. For Abe and for Buddhism, neither the starting not the ending point is the weakening of God or even Thomas Altizer’s ‘death of God.’ Both beginning and end are found in the emptiness that is No-God (a-theism) and anatman (no ego) (Ryomin).
To back up to a logical, if not ontological, place in this dialog: Abe reads into the Philippian hymn an affirmation that “In setting aside divinity, Jesus became the servant of all,” thus “setting aside all that we usually look to as God” (Sabatino 69). He clearly interprets e`auto.n evke,nwsen as divine self-abnegation at a fundamental level. When God becomes flesh, transcendence is vacated in toto; God becomes world. In what Paul reported, and the Church celebrated, as a historical event, God becomes created matter, the gift eternally brought forth from infinite no-thingness, and “neither God nor self, but world becomes center” (75). The divine self-emptying that was the Incarnation entailed not only the Son, but necessarily the fullness of God, according to Abe’s hermeneutics - a result of an inadequately developed theology of the Trinity. God’s own self is poured out into Jesus. Since the Incarnation issued in the death of Jesus, it becomes inadequate to cast this as pertaining only to “God-as-Son,” without “fully implicating and representing God-as-Father” (67).
The obvious flaw in his earnest attempt to create common ground between Christianity and Buddhism is that Abe sees only a divine nature having different expressions or faces, not a nature, an essence of being, shared by three discrete subjects or Persons. For Catholic Christians, it is not in seeing Jesus as servant of all that our image of God is set aside or our focus centered on world, rather it becomes a revelation of who God truly is. Jesus opens a window and path into the Triune Godhead, in which the Father remains as transcendent deity and from which the Son is not absent. This revelation lives at the heart of the Christian kerygma. Abe writes from outside this perspective.
The logical outcome of Abe’s view of kenosis as divine suicide is that as “God has deflected attention from self by relinquishing God-ness . . . when we turn to God, we are re-turned to self and one another, to . . . our own self-emptying” (79). Whatever difference God may have made in this lies not in any residual divinity to be found in the world, but in the capacity of humankind to have absorbed meaning and intentionality from God’s self-emptying. In our human self-emptying, the Zen circle leads to an experience of fullness that is its equal and opposite, as a mirror image. Yet, it does not return us to a relationship with a God who is essentially “other” or who invites us into that otherness and empowers us to be there.
Forty years before Abe, Thomas Merton and Suzuki engaged in an exchange of ideas about the emptiness of God that was driven by the Zen concept of emptiness as “infinite - a storehouse or womb of all possible good or values. Zero = infinity, and infinity = zero. . . understood dynamically” (Merton 107). Suzuki builds on Meister Eckhart’s comparison of blessedness to perfect poverty, in which nothing is held back, not even a place for God to act: “God is at once the place where He works and the work itself” (110). But, whereas Suzuki seeks to cast the divine as infinitely empty, Merton will see an infinity of mercy or “grace precisely as emptiness, as freedom, as liberality, as gift. . . . [in which] God is His own Gift” (137). The difference is that between no-God and God.
In a more recent effort to bridge this chasm, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Buddhist Council of Southern California have engaged in a dialog more directly touching on the Incarnation than Merton was willing to do. There is a kenosis within the Godhead. The Father’s bringing forth “of the Son and the spirit is a kenosis, a process of self giving to the other and this kenosis of love is understood to be mutual in establishing the unity of the Trinity” (Dhamma). This discussion cannot realistically proceed beyond that point to the Incarnation in any way that finds common ground because of the particularity inherent in the Incarnation. Christians can see a kenosis in the Trinitarian life and with the Buddhists can affirm the fullness of life experienced in the self-giving of humble service, but that Jesus Christ, “from the side of God” (in Dorner’s words), somehow emptied himself, remaining God, yet taking human form, is a sticking point that is either acknowledged or ignored, but not ironed out.
Summary and Personal Conclusion
Asking what the pre-existent Jesus Christ emptied himself of is a dead-end, as though we could discern what attributes of his divine nature or form an incarnate Jesus could live without. With Thomasius, we might suppose, for example, his omniscience was set aside or somehow unavailable in an immediate sense to the linear, organic consciousness of Jesus, whether left in safe-keeping with the Father or hidden from his humanity. Limited knowledge seems more a consequence of living in the created order in the likeness of man than a self-emptying. Much the same could be said of the other “things” the Son might have foregone in not grasping equality with God, but taking a servant’s form. Any such deprivation would have been false, because the one giving them up would know they were to be his following his earthly life-to-be, even if the memory of them was not present during that life. He would know, as well, that they were not necessary to be used in order to function as a human. I think we have to leave aside this speculation about what the Word emptied himself of.
The operative phrase is “he emptied himself.” The verb form does not require an additional object of which he may have emptied himself. It is a strong simple statement, in Greek, Latin, and English, one often softened by commentators who see it as paradox or analogy. Yet a literal reading would pose the question whether the Son could quit “being” God or absent himself from the Father and the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Martin proposes this as “what He must do in order to take human form. It entails a suspension of His rôle as the divine Image by His taking on an image which is Man’s” (196). The problem with this lies in what it implies about the Person of the Son, who does not have a “rôle” as Image, but in whom having and being are unitary. He is the Image of the Father and cannot suspend who he is, even as he takes the “image which is Man’s.” Thomas Aquinas speaks clearly to this in his Commentary on Philippians: “He remained what he was; and what He was not, He assumed” (80).
In his Incarnation, the Second Person of the Trinity must remain always who he was/is: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15). Moreover, “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (v. 19, NRSV). This does not sound like one emptied of his divine identity or forma Dei, yet “he emptied himself.”
I see in the self-emptying of God the Son not an exchange of the form of God for that of humanity. The divine Person did not contract himself, for in his transcendent, heavenly nature, there is nothing understandable as large or little. Nor could he divest himself of his participation in the life of the Trinity, his partaking of the glory of God. In fact, this is precisely what he brought us. There was, of necessity a change, a translation of the divine glory, the unimaginable expression of the Godhead in itself. This glory was the outward expression of Yahweh to Israel and the Transfigured Christ to Peter, James, and John, but it was also revealed in the simple acts of feeding the hungry, giving wine to those already feasting, and washing the feet of the apostles.
The Anglican bishop and Biblical scholar J. B. Lightfoot had a belief in the literal inspiration of scripture, in the narrow sense. “The words must both lead and follow the thought,” he wrote in an unpublished commentary on the Pauline epistles (Britannica). In reference to the Philippian text, he has a good deal to say about the form of God and Christ’s equality with God, but about emptied, he says only that he “stripped Himself of the insignia of majesty.” He did not divest himself “of his divine nature, for this was impossible, but of the glories, the prerogatives of Deity” (112).
The Liturgy expresses in prayer what we believe while it helps us to believe. The Preface for Weekdays 1 speaks of the kenosis: “Though he was by nature divine, he stripped himself of glory/ and by shedding his blood on the cross, he brought peace to the world” (Sacramentary 454). The parallel between letting go of glory and letting go of his life blood brings the issue into closer focus. I believe this prayer language, like the Philippian hymn, is metaphor to make a point. He stripped himself of what humans conceive of as visible glory, but surely not of its real presence, any more than pouring out his life blood depleted the divine life. In both cases, the emptying was revelatory and salutary, giving light and life more broadly.
Jesus brought the true glory of God in his own Person into this life in order to show it, not shade it, to reveal it in a way that was compatible with his and our humanity. What is ineffable, inexpressible in itself, he expressed in his human likeness in a way humans could understand. He did not hide his Light under a bushel, he let it shine in loving God and neighbor. As it shone, it was not diminished, but gave light even to the dead.
Beyond analogy, metaphor, and poetry, e`auto.n evke,nwsen is understandable as an expression of the existential truth that at one moment in time the Person of God the Son poured out self in becoming flesh and continues, even more powerfully, to give without condition his very self, taking to himself humanity freely offered by Grace-filled women and men. In this pouring out and bringing back, all Creation is/will be restored to the Father. The kenosis has an etiology, a teleology beyond world, quite contrary to Abe’s vision of God entirely poured out as world.
This restoration is not an empty offering to an absent deity. Fullness itself, Jesus Christ is infinitely full even when emptied in “taking the form of a slave (and) being born in human likeness.” This human likeness is not a sieve that dissipates God’s ‘suchness,’ but an earthen vessel made to hold and reveal it and be transfigured by it. “Human nature and the soul are not full, but capable of fulness, because it was made as an empty slate” (Aquinas Comm. 80). Thus the plate and cup of clay become the golden monstrance, the transformation of the earthen vessels of our humanity into hosts of the divine kenosis in time and in eternity.
This self-emptying and filling reflects the mutual self-giving within the Trinity. In his life, Jesus continued to empty himself in service and obedience, even to “death on a cross.” In his Resurrection and exaltation and through the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit, he poured out his very identity into the life of the Church, communally and individually. In the words of St. Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Through the power of the Spirit, Jesus’ self is continually emptied, undiminished, into the lives of men and women, who are called and empowered to empty themselves in giving to one another. In that emptying they taste the fullness that is theirs now and that will be fully realized in their resurrection into the divine life of the Trinity.
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Entire paper copyright, 2012, by John Jay Jackson.
Entire paper copyright, 2012, by John Jay Jackson.