In this essay, I defend a thesis sometimes called kenotic Christology. According to kenotic Christology, Christ gave up some of His divine attributes while on Earth. So, strictly speaking, Christ was not omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent during the time He walked the Earth. This stands in contrast to the Christology put forth by the Council of Chalcedon and expounded by the Second Council of Nicea, which held that Christ possessed two natures without diminishment. For useful discussion of this, see recent work by Timothy Pawl (2014, 2016) and this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (I will comment briefly on Pawl's work below.)
I argue that Christ did possess both a divine and a human nature, but that the divine nature was in some sense 'diminished' while He was on Earth.
The rest of this essay is divided into two parts. The first is the Biblical argument. I argue that Scripture supports the conclusion that Christ gave up some of His divine attributes while on Earth. That section is primarily expository. The second is the philosophical argument. I argue that Chalcedonian Christology leads to a contradiction. By reductio ad absurdum, Chalcedonian Christology must be false.
The Biblical Argument
It is my conviction that all Christological theories must be rooted in Scripture, even if Scripture underdetermines the true Christological theory. So before turning to the philosophical argument, I will provide some textual support for kenotic Christology.
The key citation for kenotic Christology is found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
Have this in mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even on the cross. (Philipians 2:5-8, ESV)
The language in this passage strongly suggests that Christ was not equal to God—that is, that Christ somehow made Himself less than God. The kenotic Christian has an explanation for what this inequality amounts to: Christ gave up some of His divine attributes. The kenotic Christian claims that Christ gave up those attributes because He emptied Himself. The language here strongly suggests that Christ had those attributes and then chose to give them up (temporarily). In more metaphysical terms: Christ did not possess a full divine nature—he was not divine without diminishment.
Further support for this is that Christ appeared to not have been omniscient in the Gospels. For space, I will just cite this passage from Mark:
And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’” And he looked around to se who had done it. (Mark 5:30-32, ESV)
The point of this section has been to show that kenotic Christology is Biblically motivated. Now that some Biblical motivations have been established, I turn to the philosophical argument against Chalcedonian Christology.
The Philosophical Argument
The philosophical argument given in this section relies on the principle of reductio ad absurdum, which we will understand for simplicity as the principle that if some doctrine leads to a contradiction, then that doctrine is false. I claim that the doctrine of Chalcedonian Christology leads to a contradiction, so by reductio it is false.
Here is the argument.
Christ had, during his time on Earth, two natures (divine and human) without diminishment. (Assumption, from Chalcedonian Christology)
If some entity has a nature without diminishment, that entity has all the essential features of that nature.
Being omnipotent is an essential feature of being divine.
Being non-omnipotent is an essential feature of being human.
So Christ was both omnipotent and non-omnipotent.
But (5) is a contradiction! By our assumed rule of reductio, the assumption (1) is false, so long as we hold fixed (2)-(4).
It is not just omnipotence that is the problem. According to Norman Tanner (1990, 162), the Council of Nicea declared
One and same Christ as both invisible and visible (invisibilem et visibilem) lord, incomprehensible and comprehensible (incomprehensibilem et comprehensibilem), unlimited and limited (incircumscriptum et circumscriptum), incapable and capable of suffering (impassibilem et passibilem), inexpressible and expressible (inscriptibilem et scriptibilem) in writing.
And these pairs seem to be pairs of contradictions! It is impossible for something to be both visible and invisible, comprehensible and incomprehensible, unlimited and limited, and so on. But it must be the case that Christ is, e.g., visible and invisible if He has two natures without diminishment.
So, I propose that to avoid contradiction, we reject (1). Instead, we should claim that Christ was not fully divine, but rather was divine in some diminished sense. Importantly, He must be divine enough for the Atonement to make sense, but He must not be so divine that he is omnipotent, omniscient, impassible, and so on. (I cannot comment on kenotic views of the Atonement here due to limitations of space.)
Solutions to this problem have been proposed, though most extant solutions have been effectively criticized by Timothy Pawl (2014, 2016). Pawl’s own solution involves giving non-standard truth-conditions to the relevant predicates; I take it to be more faithful to the Scriptural text to accept a kenotic Christology and reject the Council of Chalcedon than to give such a non-standard interpretation of what the Council of Chalcedon
We have seen two arguments for the conclusion that Christ gave up some divine attributes while on Earth. The success of these arguments vindicates kenotic Christology.
Neither of these arguments is knockdown on its own—but if one considers them together, one sees that kenotic Christology is both Biblically and philosophically motivated. It is an elegant, Biblically sound Christological theory.
Due to considerations of space, I have neglected responses to both of these arguments. They can surely be given. However, my arguments provide pro tanto support for kenotic Christology. I leave the rest for future discussion.
Tanner, Norman P. 1990. Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils 2 Volume Set. Georgetown University Press.
Pawl, Timothy. 2014. A Solution to the Fundamental Problem of Christology. Journal of Analytic Theology Vol. 2
Pawl, Timothy. 2016. In Defense of Conciliar Christology. Oxford University Press.