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The word ἐκένωσεν (ekénōsen) is used in Philippians 2:7, "Jesus made himself nothing ..." (NIV) or "...he emptied himself..." (NRSV), using the verb form κενόω (kenóō) "to empty". See also Strong's G2758.
The New Testament does not use the actual word kénōsis but the verb form kenóō occurs five times (Ro.4:14, 1Co.1:17, 9:15, 2Co.9:3, Phil.2:7). Of these five times it is Phil 2:7, in which Jesus is said to have "emptied himself," which is the starting point of Christian ideas of kenosis.
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In Christian theology, kenosis is the concept of the 'self-emptying' of one's own will and becoming entirely receptive to God and the divine will. It is used both as an explanation of the Incarnation, and an indication of the nature of God's activity and will. Mystical theologian John of the Cross' work "Dark Night of the Soul" is a particularly lucid explanation of God's process of transforming the believer into the icon or "likeness of Christ".
An apparent dilemma arises when Christian theology posits a God outside of time and space, who enters into time and space to become human (Incarnate). The doctrine of Kenosis attempts to explain what the Son of God chose to give up in terms of his divine attributes, in order to assume human nature. Since the incarnate Jesus is simultaneously truly human and truly divine, Kenosis holds that these changes were temporarily assumed by God in his incarnation, and that when Jesus ascended back into heaven following the resurrection, he fully reassumed all of his original attributes and divinity.
Specifically it refers to attributes of God that are thought to be incompatible with becoming fully human. For example, God's omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience as well as his aseity, eternity, infinity, impassibility and immutability. Theologians who support this doctrine often appeal to a reading of Philippians 2:5-8. Critics of Kenosis theology argue that the context of Philippians 2:5-8 is referring to Jesus taking the form of a servant to conceal his divine glory (revealed temporarily in the Transfiguration), or to forsaking his place and position in heaven to dwell among men, as opposed to forsaking his divine attributes or nature (see syncatabasis).
Kenotic Christology focuses on certain passages in the Gospels where Jesus was not omniscient concerning the date of the Second Advent (Mark 13:32, Matthew 24:36), and draws attention to the fact that He was not omnipresent during the incarnation. It became a central issue in the Protestant debates of the sixteenth century, and was revived in the nineteenth century to reinterpret classical doctrines of the incarnation.
The Orthodox Mystical Theology of the East emphasises following the example of Christ. Kenosis is only possible through humility and presupposes that one seeks union with God. The Poustinia tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church is one major expression of this search.
Kenosis is not only a Christological issue in Orthodox theology, it has moreover to do with Pneumatology, namely to do with the Holy Spirit. Kenosis, relative to the human nature, denotes the continual epiklesis and self-denial of one's own human will and desire. With regard to Christ, there is a kenosis of the Son of God, a condescension and self-sacrifice for the redemption and salvation of all humanity. Humanity can also participate in God's saving work through theosis; becoming holy by grace.
Therefore, in Eastern Orthodoxy, theosis never concerns becoming like God in essence or being, which is pantheism; instead, it concerns becoming united to God by grace, through his Energies. Orthodox theology distinguishes between divine Essence and Energies. Kenosis therefore is a paradox and a mystery since "emptying oneself" in fact fills the person with divine grace and results in union with God. Kenosis in Orthodox theology is the transcending or detaching of oneself from the world or the passions, it is a component of dispassionation. Much of the earliest debates between the Arian and Orthodox Christians were over kenosis. The need for clarification about the human and divine nature of the Christ (see the hypostatic union) were fought over the meaning and example that Christ set, as an example of kenosis or ekkenosis.
Another perspective is the idea that God is self-emptying. He poured out himself to create the cosmos and the universe, and everything within it. Therefore, it is our duty to pour out ourselves. (This is similar to C.S. Lewis's statement in Mere Christianity that a painter pours his ideas out in his work, and yet remains quite a distinct being from his painting.)
Although Catholicism accepts it, Pope Pius XII in 1951 wrote Sempiternus Rex Christus, in which he condemns a particular interpretation of Philippians in regards to the kenosis:
There is another enemy of the faith of Chalcedon, widely diffused outside the fold of the Catholic religion. This is an opinion for which a rashly and falsely understood sentence of St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians (ii, 7), supplies a basis and a shape. This is called the kenotic doctrine, and according to it, they imagine that the divinity was taken away from the Word in Christ. It is a wicked invention, equally to be condemned with the Docetism opposed to it. It reduces the whole mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption to empty the bloodless imaginations. 'With the entire and perfect nature of man'--thus grandly St. Leo the Great--'He Who was true God was born, complete in his own nature, complete in ours' (Ep. xxviii, 3. PL. Liv, 763. Cf. Serm. xxiii, 2. PL. lvi, 201).
Since all forms of Unitarianism do not accept the personal pre-existence of Christ therefore all Unitarian interpretations of Phil.2:7, and the concept of "kenosis", Christ "emptying" himself, take as a starting point that his "emptying" occurred in life, and not before birth. However as Thomas Belsham put it, there are varying views on when in life this emptying occurred. Belsham took this to be at the crucifixion, whereas Joseph Priestley took this to be in the Garden of Gethsemane when Christ did not resist arrest. The Christadelphian Tom Barling considered that the "emptying" of Christ was a continual process which started in the earliest references to Christ's character, Luke 2:40,52, and continued through the temptations of Christ and his ministry.
The equivalent to kenōsis in Gnostic literature is Christ's withdrawal of his own luminosity into himself, so as to cease dazzling his own disciples. At the request of his disciples, "Jesus drew to himself the glory of his light". There are parallels to this voluntary withdrawal of the incarnate deity's light in the literatures of other religions also, such as in Daoism, where when the incarnate deity "Crane Boy" came to the world of humans in his incarnation as Han Xiangzi, he "concealed his auspicious light, left the underworld, and returned to the world of humans."
The kenotic ethic is the ethic of Jesus, considered as the ethic of sacrifice. The Philippians passage urges believers to imitate Christ's self-emptying. In this interpretation, Paul was not primarily putting forth a theory about God in this passage, rather he was using God's humility exhibited in the incarnation event as a call for Christians to be similarly subservient to others.
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