International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
ke-no'-sis: The word "kenosis" (kenosis) has entered theological language from Philippians 2:7, where in the sentence he "emptied himself" the Greek verb is ekenosen. "Kenosis," then, the corresponding noun, has become a technical term for the humiliation of the Son in the incarnation, but in recent years has acquired a still more technical sense, i.e. of the Son's emptying Himself of certain attributes, especially of omniscience.
1. The New Testament:
(1) The theological question involved was one about as far as possible from the minds of the Christians of the apostolic age and apparently one that never occurred to Paul. For in Philippians 2:7 the only "emptying" in point is that of the (external) change from the "form of God" to the "form of a servant." Elsewhere in the New Testament it is usually taken as a matter of course that Christ's knowledge was far higher than that of other men (John 2:24 is the clearest example). But passages that imply a limitation of that knowledge do exist and are of various classes. Of not much importance are the entirely incidental references to the authorship of Old Testament passages where the traditional authorship is considered erroneous, as no other method of quotation would have been possible. Somewhat different are the references to the nearness of the Parousia (especially Matthew 10:23; Matthew 24:29). But with these it is always a question how far the exact phraseology has been framed by the evangelists and, apart from this, how far Christ may not have been consciously using current imagery for the impending spiritual revolution, although knowing that the details would be quite different (see PAROUSIA). Limitation of knowledge may perhaps be deduced from the fact that Christ could be amazed (Matthew 8:10, etc.), that He could be really tempted (especially Hebrews 4:15), or that He possessed faith (Hebrews 12:2; see commentary). More explicitly Christ is said to have learned in Luke 2:52 Hebrews 5:8. And, finally, in Mark 13:32 parallel Matthew 24:36, Christ states categorically that He is ignorant of the exact time of the Parousia.
(2) An older exegesis felt only the last of these passages as a real difficulty. A distinction constructed between knowledge naturally possessed and knowledge gained by experience (i.e. although the child Jesus knew the alphabet naturally, He was obliged to learn it by experience) covered most of the others. For Mark 13:32 a variety of explanations were offered. The passage was translated "neither the Son, except the Father know it," a translation that can be borne by the Greek. But it simply transfers the difficulty by speaking of the Father's knowledge as hypothetical, and is an impossible translation of Matthew 24:36, where the word "only" is added. The explanations that assume that Christ knew the day but had no commission to reveal it are most unsatisfactory, for they place insincere words in His mouth; "It is not for you to know the day" would have been inevitable form of the saying (Acts 1:7).
(1) Yet the attempt so to misinterpret the verses is not the outcome of a barren dogmatic prejudice, but results from a dread lest real injury be done to the fundamentals of Christian consciousness. Not only does the mind of the Christian revolt from seeing in Christ anything less than true God, but it revolts from finding in Him two centers of personality-Christ was One. But as omniscience is an essential attribute of God, it is an essential attribute of the incarnate Son. So does not any limitation of Christ's human knowledge tend to vitiate a sound doctrine of the incarnation? Certainly, to say with the upholders of the kenosis in its "classical" form that the Son, by an exercise of His will, determined to be ignorant as man, is not helpful, as the abandonment by God of one of His own essential attributes would be the preposterous corollary.
(2) Yet the Biblical data are explicit, and an explanation of some kind must be found. And the solution seems to lie in an ambiguous use of the word "knowledge," as applied to Christ as God and as man. When we speak of a man's knowledge in the sense discussed in the kenotic doctrine, we mean the totality of facts present in his intellect, and by his ignorance we mean the absence of a fact or of facts from that intellect. Now in the older discussions of the subject, this intellectual knowledge was tacitly assumed (mystical theology apart) to be the only knowledge worthy of the name, and so it was at the same time also assumed that God's knowledge is intellectual also-"God geometrizes." Under this assumption God's knowledge is essentially of the same kind as man's, differing from man's only in its purity and extent. And this assumption is made in all discussions that speak of the knowledge of the Son as God illuminating His mind as man.
(3) Modern critical epistemology has, however, taught man a sharp lesson in humility by demonstrating that the intellect is by no means the perfect instrument that it has been assumed to be. And the faults are by no means faults due to lack of instruction, evil desires, etc., but are resident in the intellect itself, and inseparable from it' as an intellect. Certain recent writers (Bergson, most notably) have even built up a case of great strength for regarding the intellect as a mere product of utilitarian development, with the defects resulting naturally from such an evolution. More especially does this restriction of the intellect seem to be true in religious knowledge, even if the contentions of Kant and (espescially) Ritschl be not fully admitted. Certain it is, in any case, that even human knowledge is something far wider than intellectual knowledge, for there are many things that we know that we never could have learned through the intellect, and, apparently, many elements of our knowledge are almost or quite incapable of translation into intellectual terms. Omniscience, then, is by no means intellectual omniscience, and it is not to be reached by any mere process of expansion of an intellect. An "omniscient intellect" is a contradiction in terms.
(4) In other words, God's omniscience is not merely human intellectual knowledge raised to the infinite power, but something of an entirely different quality, hardly conceivable to human thought-as different from human intellectual knowledge as the Divine omnipotence is different from muscular strength. Consequently, the passage of this knowledge into a human intellect is impossible, and the problem of the incarnation should be stated: What effect did Divine omniscience in the person have on the conscious intellect of the manhood? There is so little help from the past to be gained in answering this question, that it must remain open at present-if, indeed, it is ever capable of a full answer. But that ignorance in the intellect of the manhood is fully consistent with omniscience in the person seems to be not merely a safe answer to the question as stated, but an inevitable answer if the true humanity of Christ is to be maintained at all.
Sanday's Christology and Personality, 1911, and La Zouche, The Person of Christ in Modern Thought, 1912, are among the latest discussions of the subject, with very full references to the modern literature.
Burton Scott Easton