It occurred to me last night that ‘I Will Sing the Wondrous Story’, by Francis Rowley (1886), is explicitly kenotic in its Christology. Particularly in the following phrase appearing in the first verse, “How He left His home in glory for the cross of Calvary…”
What is kenosis? kenosis refers to the “emptying” of the Son regarding His incarnation. As far as it goes, the word is biblical in its verbal form, but it must be understood properly. When theologians refer to “kenotic theory,” however, they typically refer to a variety of erroneous interpretations of Scripture to the effect of the Son’s deity being changed, forfeited, or suspended upon the occasion of His incarnation.
Kenotic theory plays off the Greek term κενόω appearing in Philippians 2:7, “but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.” Some translations render it more woodenly, “but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (ESV) Kenoticists hold that the emptying here refers to either a conversion from or suspension of the Son’s divine nature at the point of His incarnation. Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, have always understood the kenosis of Philippians 2 as an “emptying” through assumption rather than an emptying or change of the divine nature.
Those who hold to some form of the kenotic theory believe the Son ceased being God to one extent or another at the point of incarnation. Sometimes, this is framed in terms of a partial suspension of divine attributes. In other words, instead of affirming a hypostatic union, where two natures—divine and human—unite in the one Person of the Son, they affirm a hypostatic transformation, where the Person of the Son transforms from divinity into humanity. We ought to affirm hypostatic union rather than hypostatic transformation, for the following reasons—
Why Is the Kenotic Theory Wrong?
First, God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is immutable. Malachi 3:6 says, “For I am the LORD, I do not change; Therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.” If the divine Son converted or transformed from His divinity into His humanity, He would be mutable, changeable, and the doctrine of immutability would have to be denied. Instead, we want to say that the divine Person of the Son assumed another (human) nature. As Philippians 2 puts it, while “being in the form of God,” (v. 5) our Lord nevertheless took “the form of a bondservant.”
Second, this same God is omnipresent, which precludes locomotion, which is movement from one place to another. There is no place where God is not. The Psalmist rhetorically asks, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?” (Ps. 139:7) That God the Son is omnipresent means that He did not have to move from heaven to earth to be on the earth. Rather, His Person was already “here,” being omnipresent. But that He would “condescend” to us, He assumed a nature relatable to our own, that is, He assumed a nature identical to our own, yet without sin. As Athanasius says in his notable work, On the Incarnation:
His body was for Him not a limitation, but an instrument, so that He was both in it and in all things, and outside all things, resting in the Father alone. At one and the same time–this is the wonder–as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father. (St. Athanasius, On The Incarnation (p. 19). Unknown. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added)
Third, the historical doctrine of the incarnation states that the Person of the Son, while remaining fully God, assumed the fullness of a human nature, “without conversion, composition, or confusion; which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man.” (2LBCF, 8.2) So, the Person of the Son is fully divine while also fully man. Again, Athanasius is helpful, “Not even His birth from a virgin, therefore, changed Him in any way, nor was He defiled by being in the body.”
So, how did the Son “get to the cross”? Not by leaving His place in glory nor by converting His divine nature into humanity, but while remaining fully divine He assumed another nature capable of change, locomotion, suffering, etc., that is, He assumed a human nature. And in this, His divine nature changes not one bit. Christ is one Person in whom are united two natures—divine and human. This is indeed a mystery, but it must be confessed.