Literally "emptying" in Greek, kenosis is a theological notion signifying the Christian belief that in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth God empties out the divine selfhood in humble self-giving love to the world. This interpretation of deity has been inspired especially by reflection on the life and crucifixion of Jesus in whom Christians believe the fullness of God resides. In a letter to the Philippians, St. Paul cites an early Christian hymn that pictured Jesus as being "in the form of God," yet as one who forsook this lofty status and became a "slave" (Phil 2:5-11). Through the humiliation of being crucified, Jesus emptied (ekenosen) himself completely; for this reason, Philippians continues, "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow" Here Lordship somehow coincides with absolute self-emptying love.
Subsequent theological reflection has often, though not always or consistently, interpreted the text of Philippians to imply that in Jesus the very being of God is what is "emptied out." At times theologies have even gone to the extreme of interpreting the notion of kenosis to mean that God, in pouring out the divine substance, literally ceases to be God. The more accepted view, however, is that in God's self-abandoning incarnation in Jesus, who for Christians became the crucified and risen Christ, the ultimate ground and sustainer of the universe is revealed decisively as absolute selflessness and limitless compassion (co-suffering).
The image of a self-empting God in Christian tradition
This biblically inspired picture of a God who from all eternity foregoes any crudely domineering power in order to relate intimately to the created world has emerged more conspicuously than ever in contemporary theological reflection on the roots of Christian faith. While the image of God as self-emptying love has always been present in Christian tradition, it has often been subordinated to pictures of God as potentate, designer, or even dictator. However, to a theology that views the crucified Christ as part of the revelation of reality's underlying depths, it would seem that God renounces any claims to coercive omnipotence. It is to this God of actual religious experience, rather than to philosophically abstract portraits of deity, that an increasing number of theologians today hope to connect their conversations with science, and especially with evolutionary biology.
The theme of God's self-humbling has been present, though often nearly invisible, from the very beginnings of Christian tradition. However, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it began to emerge more explicitly. The theme of the "descent of God" can be found in many early Christian writers, and it is present in Martin Luther's (1483–1546) focus on the crucified God. Later it breaks out in the German philosopher George Friedrich Hegel's (1770–1831) interpretation of the divine incarnation. But it began to become a more prominent feature of Christian theology especially in the late nineteenth century and increasingly throughout the twentieth century. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison, prior to his execution by the Nazis in 1943, that only a "weak" God could be truly effective in the world. His ideas, though undeveloped, became an important stimulus to the contemporary recovery of a kenotic theology. Likewise, British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) and process theologians have emphasized that God is a "fellow sufferer" who participates in the world's struggle and pain.
Thus for many contemporary Christian thinkers the image of a self-emptying, fully relational God seems to lie at the heart of a religiously coherent and pastorally acceptable theology. God's self-emptying is the underlying dynamism of the doctrine of the Trinity, which the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968) held to be the distinguishing content of Christian revelation. The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner (1904–1984) insisted that the primary message of Christian faith is the self-emptying of God. In Section 93 of his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) Pope John Paul II stated that "the prime commitment of theology is seen to be the understanding of God's kenosis, a grand and mysterious truth for the human mind, which finds it inconceivable that suffering and death can express a love which gives itself and seeks nothing in return."
A self-emptying God as explanation for the creation and evolution of the universe
For some theologians the idea of a self-emptying God allows us to explain in an ultimate way, and in a manner that does not compete or interfere with scientific explanation, both the creation and the evolution of the cosmos and life. Uniting the idea of kenosis with Jewish cabalistic reflections, the Protestant theologian Jürgen Moltmann (b. 1926), for example, speculates in God in Creation (1985) that
God "withdraws himself from himself to himself" in order to make creation possible. His creative activity outwards is preceded by this humble divine self-restriction. In this sense God's self-humiliation does not begin merely with creation, inasmuch as God commits himself to this world: it begins beforehand, and is the presupposition that makes creation possible. God's creative love is grounded in his humble, self-humiliating love. This self-restricting love is the beginning of that self-emptying of God that Philippians 2 sees as the divine mystery of the Messiah. Even in order to create heaven and earth, God emptied himself of all his all-plenishing [i.e., pervasive] omnipotence, and as Creator took upon himself the form of a servant. (p. 88)
Today, especially in discussions of religion and evolution, reflection on the idea of divine kenosis allows theologians to embrace the scientific picture of life without reservation. Emergent complexity, chaos, and nature's generically self-organizing tendencies fit more comfortably a universe grounded less in coercive power than nurturing love that allows the universe some degree of self-creativity. After all, it is in the very nature of self-sacrificing, kenotic love to long for the freedom and self-determination of the beloved. We may assume, then, that an infinitely self-emptying divine love would will that the created universe become something "other" than God. God could not be said to love unreservedly a universe that is not allowed to be distinct from the divine. Since kenotic love requires an "other," any conceivable creator who refused to risk allowing the world to be, at least to some degree, independent of God could not truly love it.
So, according to this line of theological speculation, it is because God is infinite self-emptying love that the universe is not constituted as perfect and complete at the beginning in one instantaneous act of divine magicianship. It is because a kenotic God wills the otherness of the world that it is not frozen into finished perfection from the moment of its origins, but is invited to emerge in patterns of self-organization that contemporary science has begun to notice so clearly.
To those who follow a kenotic theology any conceivable world must likewise allow for the kind of spontaneity that occurs in biological evolution. Any universe grounded in a divine kenotic love must possess a vein of indeterminacy from the moment of its most primitive physical origins. In the light of the divine kenosis it would not be surprising, then, to discover that the cosmos is not fixed in an immobile pattern of eternal sameness, but that it always has an inherent openness to novel and unpredictable outcomes. In the light of a kenotic understanding of the creator, it makes good theological sense that modern physics has disclosed a domain of "uncertainty" or indeterminacy in the elusive realm of subatomic energy events. It is consonant also with the notion of a kenotic deity that evolutionary biologists would encounter another kind of indeterminacy in the "accidental," undirected genetic mutations and many other contingencies of natural history that allow for the serendipitous emergence of life's prodigious variety. And, finally, the fact that humans apprehend in their own subjectivity an undeniable capacity for free choice appears especially consistent with the belief that the cosmos to which they are linked is rooted in a self-emptying principle of being intent upon the emergence of what is truly and deeply "other" than itself. A universe of emergent evolution is more or less what should be expected when people begin reflecting on nature with a belief in the kenotic nature of ultimate reality.
The seemingly aimless meandering of biological evolution may be incompatible with a divine designer, but not with a creative power that takes the form of defenseless love. If the deity were powerful only in the vulgar sense of having the capacity to overwhelm, then evolution might be theologically troubling. But a divine power that manifests itself in infinite self-giving love does not manipulate that which it enfolds. According to advocates of a kenotic theology, therefore, the unqualified religious claim that God is primarily a "designer" would be quite problematic. A designing deity could not permit the world any real independence. A kenotic understanding of divine creation, on the other hand, would allow that life and eventually mind may blossom indeterminately, and over a long period of time, in a universe that is in some sense self-creative from the outset. A kenotic deity would be the ultimate source of the possibilities for novel patterning made available to an evolving cosmos, but in such a way as to allow for a great measure of spontaneity in the evolution of life, mind, and freedom.
See also Christology; Evolution, Theology of; Whitehead, Alfred North
balthasar, hans urs von. mysterium paschale, trans. aidan nichols. edinburgh, uk: t&t clark, 1990.
hallmann, joseph m. the descent of god: divine suffering in history and theology. minneapolis, minn.: fortress press, 1991.
haught, john f. god after darwin: a theology of evolution. boulder, colo.: westview press, 2000.
john paul ii. encyclical letter fides et ratio (september 14, 1998). washington, d.c.: united states catholic conference, 1998.
jüngel, eberhard. the doctrine of the trinity: god's being is in becoming, trans. horton harris. grand rapids, mich.: eerdmans, 1976.
macquarrie, john. the humility of god. philadelphia, pa.: westminster press, 1978.
moltmann, jürgen. the crucified god, trans. r. a. wilson and john bowden. new york: harper, 1974.
moltmann, jürgen. god in creation, trans. margaret kohl. san francisco: harper, 1985.
murphy, nancey, and ellis, george f. r. on the moral nature of the universe: theology, cosmology, and ethics. minneapolis, minn.: fortress press, 1996.
polkinghorne, john, ed. the work of love. grand rapids, mich.: eerdmans, 2001.
richard, lucien j. christ: the self-emptying of god. new york: paulist press, 1997.
The incarnation is described as a humiliation or emptying (Greek κενόω) in Phil 2.7. The whole passage (2.5–11) is important because it is one of the great Christological texts of the New Testament and because it has been cited in support of a modern theory on the Incarnation known as kenoticism.
In Phil 2.5–11 Paul is probably quoting a hymn sung in the Palestinian Churches. As L. Cerfaux has shown, the movements of the third and fourth strophes (v. 7b and v. 9) are patterned on the Deutero-Isaian picture of the suffering and glorified Servant of the Lord (Is ch. 53; see suffering servant, songs of). The words "every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord [κύριος]" is a brief act of faith like Rom 10.9 and 1 Cor 12.3 (see lord, the). Despite a wide variation in the interpretation of individual words and phrases, the mainstream of patristic exegesis is unanimous in seeing in this text a scriptural proof of the divinity of Christ, of His real and complete humanity, and of the unity of His Person.
The modern kenotic theory of the Incarnation began with Evangelical theologians in Germany in the 19th century. It was taken up by some Anglicans and Russian Orthodox. Common to all the types of kenotic theology is the thesis that the divine Word relinquished some or all of His divinity in becoming man: that He surrendered His omnipotence, His divine omniscience, His omnipresence; that He lost consciousness of His divinity; or even that He ceased to be God from the moment of the Incarnation until the Resurrection. For the kenotic school of theology there is no other way of reconciling a really human experience in Our Lord with belief in His divinity.
P. Henry's brilliant and exhaustive evaluation of kenotic theology makes the following points: the whole weight of impartial scholarship is against the kenotic interpretation of Phil 2.5–11; in all of Christian antiquity there is no trace of kenoticism in interpreting this passage; it is metaphysically impossible for God to change. On the other hand, a positive refutation of kenoticism must reckon with the questions it has raised. Was the human condition in all its fullness (e.g., the agony of decision) experienced by Our Lord? If so, what is to be said about such traditional theological assertions as that of Christ's foreknowledge?
See Also: jesus christ (in theology).
Bibliography: p. henry, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928–) 5:7–161. a. gaudel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant, 15 v. (Paris 1903–50; Tables générales 1951–) 8.2:2339–49. f. loofs, j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion & Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 1908–27) 7:680–687. l. cerfaux, Christ in the Theology of St. Paul, tr. g. webb and a. walker (New York 1959). c. gore, The Incarnation of the Son of God (Bampton Lectures; London 1891). d. g. dawe, "A Fresh Look at the Kenotic Christologies," Scottish Journal of Theology 15 (1962) 337–349.
[j. m. carmody]