Monday, February 18, 2013


One of the difficulties in ascribing deity to the Nazarene is that throughout the Christian Scriptures (and indeed by simple mental reflection) we encounter a portrait of the Nazarene which appears much more of a limited and finite human than an infinite God. We are informed that the Nazarene "The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him." (Luke 2:40, NRSV).

In order to understand the instances where the Nazarene appears more human than divine, many Christians have begun turning to Philippians 2:6-7: "[Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but he emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, being born in human likeness" The notion that the Nazarene "emptied himself" or, alternatively translated, "made himself nothing" has given rise to the "Kenotic Theology" (named after the Greek term in question). Ron Rhodes sees three aspects to this process a) the veiling of his preincarnate glory, b) taking on human likeness, and c) the voluntary non-use of the divine attributes. The first doesn’t strike me a particularly an issue, in and of itself. Nature itself is, in a sense, a veil of God’s glory allowing us to have free choice, this application is a little more problematic but because it is tied to the aspects which are being dealt with separately. The second one we will deal with more in depth later. The final one, the "voluntary non-use of the divine attributes is what concerns us here.

Rhodes explains:

A second issue involved in Christ making himself "nothing" in the Incarnation had to do with submission to voluntary nonuse of some of his divine attributes in order for him to accomplish his objectives. Christ could never have actually surrendered any of his attributes, for then he would have ceased to be God. But he could (and did) voluntarily cease using some of them during his time on earth (approximately 4 B.C. to A.D. 29) in order to live among men and their limitations.1


"Made himself of no reputation" means to empty--the Greek word is keno. The kenosis theory derives its name from the word keno. Christ emptied Himself…He emptied Himself of something, but it was not of His deity. He was 100 percent God when He was a baby reclining helplessly on the bosom of Mary….Well, then, of what did the Lord Jesus empty Himself when He came to earth? I believe that He emptied Himself of the prerogatives of deity. He lived on this earth with certain limitations, but they were self-limitations. There was never a moment when He wasn’t God.2

Finally while Jesus Christ voluntarily refrained from exercising certain attributes of deity, he did not divest himself of a single divine attribute (John 1:14; Philippians 2:1-11; Colossians 1:15-20; Hebrew 2:14-18). (Hank Hanegraaff, The Complete Bible Answer Book, page 229)

God has certain attributes, attributes which humans lack. God is everywhere, omnipresent. God is all-knowing, omniscient. God is all-powerful, omnipotent. God is un-changing, immutable. Humans do not possess those capacities so we are told that in order to become human God "toned it down" a little, willingly abstaining from his powers without giving them up. Indeed as the citation from Rhodes notes that to surrender these attributes would have been to cease being God, about which he later elaborates, "As such, it is clear that Christ, as God, cannot change in his essential being, and hence he could never give up any of his divine attributes. Indeed ‘God cannot change His nature by act of His will any more than any other being. Attributes inherent in a persona essence cannot be dismissed.’"(ibid page 196).

So when we see that the Nazarene underwent normal human development, such as growing and learning, or indicated that he was unaware of a particular matter, it was because he had voluntarily given up use of his divine attributes, he was, if you pardon the term, "keeping it real" (indeed this slang term carries a heavy overtone of maintaining artificial self-limitations in order to project a pre-conceived notion of authenticity.)

The difficulty is that while it is conceivable to possess the power to do anything without exercising that power, the parallel is not true with other divine attributes. On may be omnipotent with respect to knowledge, possessing the ability to know anything, but one is not omniscient if there are things that one does not know. One may be omnipotent with respect to place, possessing the ability to be anywhere and/or everywhere but if one has restricted himself to a single location this is not omnipresence. While it is argued "With respect to his omniscience, for example his human nature may have served as a filter limiting his knowledge as a man (e.g., Mark 13:32). Nonetheless, Jesus' divine omniscience was ever accessible at the will of the Father." (Hanegraaff, The Complete Bible Answer Book, page 229), this is a distinction without a difference. The potential to know anything is not omniscience, and if the Nazarene's "divine nature" was omniscient while his human nature was not there is no meaningful unity between those natures. Such a suggestion would at best be equivalent to saying he was part God, part man, rather than fully God and fully man.

We are not alone in this assessment; we have already encountered Christian objections to it while discussing the concept of incarnation:

Like many other theological terms, this term can be misleading. It might suggest that the eternal Logos by the act of incarnation was confined to the body of Jesus of Nazareth. The implication of such a construction of the result of the incarnation is that God the Son, kenotically "emptying" himself, divesting himself of the attribute of being always and everywhere immediately present in the universe. But to hold such a view is tantamount to contending that he who enfleshed himself as Jesus of Nazareth, while doubtless more than man, is not quite God."3

While proponents of the Kenotic Theology do not seem to understand the incarnation as implying that the Nazarene was not omnipresent, the principle remains the same. Not-knowing something, even voluntarily, is to "surrender" omniscience just as not being everywhere is to "surrender" omnipresence. Christian critics of the Kenotic Theology object, "How can Jesus Christ be God if we would simultaneously affirm that during the incarnate life he was not omniscient?"(Evangelical Dictionary of Theology page 602). Insofar as Kenotic Theologians would not say that the Nazarene was not omniscient, these critics are essentially calling them out on a merely verbal affirmation of omniscience.

It is not easy for Christians to dismiss the Kenosis Theory though:

Did Christ know or not know the time of the end (Mark 13:32)? Orthodoxy said he must know, he is the presence of the omniscient God; however for some reason he has chosen not to reveal this knowledge. Kenotic theorist insist that the text says what it says. He limited himself to his human and real development; he was genuinely dependent on his Father, he did not know. The problem of who is biblical cuts more than one way.4

Similarly, with respect to the conceptual difficulty of how the human and divine consciousness of the Nazarene interact according to the Kenotic Theology the rejoinder could be made:

However, the strain [in the Kenotic Theology] is fundamentally a relocation of the same strain orthodoxy faces when it attempts to affirm very God-very man in terms of the consciousness of the earthly Jesus. The problem cuts both ways.5

We, however, are unstirred by such counter-arguments since we do not consider the belief in the divinity of the Nazarene to be coherent or biblical. The two camps pointing out the problems in either’s solutions highlights that the real problem is the erroneous doctrine. Though it might be appealing for a Kenotic theologian to argue that the distinction between non-use of attributes and not retaining them is a mystery, this is insufficient. Such an argument would be extremely ad hoc as illustrated by their very insistence that the attributes must be retained, since by admitting logical impossibilities we could just as easily argue that, in opposition to Kenotic Theology, the Nazarene entirely divested himself of the divine attributes, yet mysteriously remained wholly divine. There is not theological hurdle which cannot be "overcome" by such reasoning.

Christian thinkers struggle with reconciling the apparent absence of divine attributes in the Nazarene with the necessity of him having them to be divine. Those who argue that while he possessed them, he did not utilize them, but particularly with respect to omniscience this distinction is verbal. Others understand him as actually being omniscient but are forced to understand certain passages in their scripture unnaturally. Either system has serious drawbacks and neither are appealing, particularly when one bears in mind how little reason there is to believe the Nazarene is divine.

1Christ Before The Manger, page 195-196.
2Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee Volume 5 page 302.
3Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, pages 555-556.
4Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, page 601.
5Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, page 602.

No comments: