August 11, 2022

Did Jesus Empty Himself of Divinity in the Incarnation (Phil. 2:7)?

Nathan W. Bingham & Steven Lawson
Did Jesus Empty Himself of Divinity in the Incarnation (Phil. 2:7)?

Did Jesus set aside some of His divine attributes when He assumed a human nature in the incarnation? Today, Stephen Nichols responds to a common misunderstanding of Philippians 2:7.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: Joining me on the Ask Ligonier podcast this week is the President of Reformation Bible College, Dr. Stephen Nichols. Dr. Nichols, did Jesus empty himself of divinity in the incarnation?

DR. STEPHEN NICHOLS: So the answer to that is clearly, no. We have to start with the fact that Jesus is truly God and truly man. He is two natures in one person. So the view here, sometimes this is called kenotic theology. It’s based on the Greek word_ kenosis_, that Jesus emptied Himself. The idea is that at the incarnation, Jesus voluntarily set aside His divine attributes. He emptied himself of His divinity.

And this was a view that was very popular especially in the 1800s. Many people, I think unaware sing this view. It comes to us in a line from a beautiful hymn, a Wesley hymn, “And Can It Be.” And the third stanza, the original line of Wesley’s and the third stanza was, “That he emptied himself of all but love.” So the idea is that at the incarnation, Jesus, and this is based on Philippians 2:7, which we’ll look at here, Jesus sort of sets aside as if it’s like a coat He can take off; His divine nature and sets it aside.

Well, let’s take a look at Philippians 2:7. Let’s see what the text actually says. It is in a context of what we call the humiliation of Christ and the exaltation of Christ. Philippians 2:7 says that, “Jesus emptied himself by taking the form of a servant being born in the likeness of men.” He did not empty Himself of His divine nature. Jesus is truly God. He could not stop being God. The emptied Himself is a reference to His position, to His exaltation. What we see is He becomes a servant. This is humiliation, and not only does He become a servant, but He comes obedient unto death and not just death, but now we have the absolute nadir, the bottom of this exaltation, when it is death on a cross.

We’re told this in the Old Testament to die on the cross is a most cursed death and that’s what Jesus endured. That began with His leaving and this is actually right from Charles Wesley’s hymns. As you look at that third stanza, the first line is, “He left his father’s throne above.” That’s what Jesus emptied Himself of. He emptied himself of His position, of His exaltation; so that He could take on flesh, be incarnate, so that He could live in obedience, so that He could die on the cross, so that He could accomplish redemption. Now that’s the theology, so we need to make sure we never say that Jesus emptied Himself of His divinity.

Let’s try to fix the hymn. When we sing that hymn, some people have said, “Emptied himself because of love,” but we can even go one step further and say as the Trinity hymnal has it, “Humbled himself, so great his love.” Let’s be careful about our theology. Let’s even be careful about what we sing, that we’re singing Orthodox theology, and above all, let’s remember who Jesus Christ is. He is truly God, truly man; two natures in one person. And He is the God-man for us and for our salvation.