The Godless Christ

"Jesus set aside His divinity, choosing instead to live as a man completely dependent on God."

— Bill Johnson, Face to Face with God, page 108.

Introduction

It may seem elusive at times to understand the nature of our God. God is infinite and our minds are finite, so how could we possibly understand Him in all He is? Some of the truths about our God are more obvious and come more naturally to us than others. I think of things like God’s love or power. But one area which behooves us to grasp is that glorious doctrine we call the incarnation. Jesus restoring a man’s sight, calming the waves, or even raising the dead cannot compare to the God of the universe making Himself man. How could such a thing occur? Many explanations exist, but few pass the test of orthodoxy. In this examination of both the erroneous and the orthodox views of Christology I will be intentionally technical, but not without purpose. A growing trend in modern day christendom is to consider theology as the antithesis of worship. Promulgated by many of those who hold to erroneous views of the incarnation, this idea stated in a more base form is to say simply that love, is not cultivated, and is even staunched, by knowledge of its subject. You can either have a big head and a small heart, or a small head and a big heart. Surely if this is true then the production of the Bible serves only to prove that God does not understand the operation of the very thing (love) which He claims to be identical to His own nature (1 John 4:16). However, rather than argue this point, instead I want to demonstrate its impotence. The doctrine of the incarnation, in all its vast theological breadth and depth, also provides some of the greatest application to our lives, and therefore, to our worship of God. Knowledge is not the antithesis to love, but it’s source. To echo the words of Pastor Mike Riccardi, “The heights of our worship will never exceed the depths of our theology” (John 4:23–24).

Kenoticism

The heresies against historical orthodox Christology are numerous, but there is one in particular which as of late has become popular. Kenoticism is a Christology which is held by many popular speakers, beloved in evangelical circles. Advocates include Bill Johnson and Kris Vallaton of Bethel Church, Todd White, Benny Hinn, and Kenneth Copeland to name only a few. Kenoticists point to Philippians 2:5–8 as the text from which to derive this doctrine. It should be noted however that this is a doctrine which is crafted of Satan (as it is the embodiment of his first lie in the garden Genesis 3:4–5), not one recognized from sacred scripture. The Kenotic theory is taken from Philippians 2:7 which says that Jesus “emptied Himself.” The Greek word used here for “emptied” is kenoō from which the term Kenoticism is derived. The question arises when reading this text, “Of what did Jesus empty Himself?” The Kenoticists answer this by stating that Christ laid aside His divinity, whether in part or in whole.

Some categorize God’s attributes into immanent and relative divine attributes in order to say that He gave up only His relative attributes (such as His omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence) while retaining His immanent attributes (such as His love, kindness, goodness) during the incarnation. When Jesus came to earth He laid aside His divine powers and enacted His miracles only as a man. Bill Johnson remarks in his book When Heaven Invades Earth, “He performed miracles, wonders, and signs, as a man in right relationship to God...not as God.” Some Kenoticists, even those who previously held to an only human Christ such as Todd White, reject the characterization of them believing Jesus was not God on earth. They instead opt for a functional Kenoticism where although Jesus was in possession of all His divine power and attributes, He did not exert His divinity while on the earth. While Todd White had previously said that Jesus had to lay aside all of His divinity, in an interview with The Remnant Radio from September of 2020 White clarifies his position saying that Jesus, “Didn’t utilize His divine privileges,” although He still possessed them (it is difficult to consider this ‘clarification’ as White’s actual position however, since there is replete video evidence which suggests he holds to the more radical view of Christ being only man while on earth).

Philippians 2:3–8
3 doing nothing from selfish ambition or vain glory, but with humility of mind regarding one another as more important than yourselves, 4 not merely looking out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 5 Have this way of thinking in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although existing in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a slave, by being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Biblical Kenosis

In order to accurately assess the aforementioned Christological views, we must first understand the biblical truth regarding this idea of Christ emptying Himself. Therefore, an examination of Phillippians 2 is in order. Verse 7 is the crux of the problem, for which verse 6 sets the stage. It explains that Christ was already in the form of God, but (v7) Jesus “emptied Himself.” What are we to make of this? Did God remove a part of Himself in the incarnation? The Kenoticists think so, and cite this as the definitive proof of that. But God defends His own nature. Jesus “emptied himself, by taking,” as the ESV puts it. What may appear as a contradiction in terms is the very thing which saves us from unorthodox Christological heresy. The greek word used here for “emptied” (kenoō) is only used four other times in the New Testament (Romans 4:14, 1 Corinthians 1:17, 1 Corinthians 9:15, 2 Corinthians 9:3), and not one time is it used in a literal sense. Kenoō used here does not mean Christ poured something out of Himself, but, like every other biblical passage, it means to make something void, or of no effect. It means to nullify. Jesus did not remove His deity, He added something to Himself which made it of no effect. Think of a beautiful woman dressed in baggy, non-form fitting clothes. Her modesty nullifies her curves. She has veiled her form in a way so as to make its physically attractive nature of no effect. Likewise Christ shielded us from His glory by hiding it behind a curtain of human flesh, and represented us fully, not only by taking on our inward nature, but also our outward appearance. He did not lay aside anything, He did not divest Himself of anything, He did not replace one part of His nature with something else, He did not empty Himself by removing; He emptied Himself by taking (v7). Jesus took to Himself something which made His Godly form of no effect; He veiled it with another form, the form of a bondslave (see Isaiah 53:2–3). Both the form of God and the form of man coexisted in the person of Jesus. This coexistence is proven to us by the events of the transfiguration, where Jesus pulls back His human appearance spoken of in verse 7, and lets His glory shine through (Matthew 17:1–2). Both the form of man and the form of God were equally present and intact in Jesus Christ, the only difference being that one was on top of the other, His humanity veiling His deity.

The Failure of Kenoticism

Kenoticism fails to recognize the truth that Jesus was fully God and fully man. Aside from the fact that Philippians 2 does not teach the divestiture of Christ, one of the most objectionable things about Kenoticism is that it destroys the Trinity. This takes some further exploration of the nature of God to understand. Remember that God is not a composite of His attributes, as if after mixing love, omniscience, and all His other attributes together, you would then produce God. He is rather identical to His attributes. He is not loving He instead is love (1 John 1:5, 4:16). Kenotic theology however separates attributes of God into categories of those He can relinquish and those He cannot, removing some of the very traits which are used to define God Himself. God cannot not be all powerful, or all knowing. To say Jesus ceased to consist of any aspect of His nature is to say that He would no longer be God. As Mike Riccardi points out in a sermon at the 2017 Shepherds Conference, this would reduce the Trinity to a binity; no longer one God and three Persons, but one God and two Persons (the Father and Holy Spirit). What makes this worse, although it may not be spoken of often, is that the incarnation was not temporary. Colossians 2:9 says, “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” “Dwells” here is in the present tense, not past. His Godhead currently dwells in bodily form. This means that the logical conclusion of Kenoticism is that not only was the Trinity reduced to a binity in the past, but, under the Kenotic view, it still is a binity. Jesus is still not God. This is blatantly false according to the Biblical data (Colossians 2:9, Philippians 2:11, Acts 2:32, Matthew 4:7, etc.). Nonetheless popular Word of Faith and New Apostolic Reformation teachers and preachers hold fast to the Kenotic theory of the incarnation, and have even gone so far as to write their own ‘translation’ of the Bible to affirm this heretical theology. The Passion Translation, a new ‘bible’ which has found a popular place among christians evangelicals, rewrites verse 7 to say the following, “Instead he emptied himself of his outward glory by reducing himself to the form of a lowly servant. He became human!” Notice the change from the biblical ‘emptied Himself by taking’, to the rewritten ‘emptied Himself by reducing.’ Here the Passion doesn’t just fail to accurately translate the greek word used for ‘taking’, author Brian Simmons literally uses its antithesis, which serves only as a reminder and further evidence of his highly sectarian ‘translation.’

An Examination of Orthodoxy

It is only by a familiarization with the truth that we might defend ourselves from false Christologies (Ephesians 6:17, John 17:17). Jesus existed as the uncaused God of the universe before time began, begotten of the Father (John 1:1–2,14; 3:16, 8:58, 10:30, Philippians 2:5–6). Jesus had a human body, soul, and spirit (1 John 4:2–3, Matthew 26:38, 27:50; Hebrews 2:17). He had two natures (Philippians 2:5–7, Hebrews 2:17, Colossians 2:9), two consciousnesses (Luke 2:52, John 2:25, 16:30), two wills (John 5:30, 10:30; Matthew 26:39), and two outward appearances (Philippians 2:5–8, Matthew 17:1–2), although His appearance according to His Godhead was hidden by His appearance according to His manhood (Philippians 2:8). He exists in His exalted incarnate state to this day (Colossians 2:9) as one Person (Hebrews 4:14–15 specifically attributes the human phenomenology, of the incarnation which would grant sympathy, to the person of Jesus, not a different human person trapped in Christ’s body with Him, as a heresy such as Nestorianism postulates). Truly and fully man, and truly and fully God, different in personhood from the Father and Holy Spirit, but the same in being (Deuteronomy 6:4, Luke 3:22, Matthew 28:19, John 10:30, Acts 5:3–4). All of these facts were necessary for the atonement. He had to be truly and fully man to accurately represent man on the cross. He had to be truly and fully God in order to not just to endure the wrath of God, but also to atone for the sins of all whom He died for. By being truly and fully God, Jesus was able to suffer the infinite punishment of all, because He was infinite Himself.

The Early Church

This Christology is not a new doctrine, but it was rather formulated centuries ago by over 500 bishops in 451 AD at the Council of Chalcedon: “We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [or rational] soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.”

Application

Having examined the erroneous views of the incarnation, and contrasting them with biblical doctrine, along with the historical understanding of that doctrine, now the question remains: Why do we need to know? Why was this included in the Bible? It is here where I will fulfill my promise of a demonstration. Easily I could list a various reasons why understanding the nature of Jesus Christ is profitable, even if it is for the sole purpose of knowing our Savior more fully. However, there is no need to synthesize an answer since the scriptures themselves tell us why, and in scripture’s answer is found one of the fullest humiliations of the doctrine which states that love is impeded by deep knowledge, or that theology only serves to dry out our worship of God. Philippians 2:5 answers our question immediately. It is the mind, or the attitude rather, which Christ displays in His kenosis and incarnation which we are to emulate as believers. What is this attitude? Examine the next three verses of Philippians 2. He ""did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,” the NIV says that He “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage,” He “made Himself of no reputation,” “He humbled Himself and became obedient.” The mind which we are to emulate is one of humility. The context attests to this in verses 3 and 4 saying, “Doing nothing from selfish ambition or vain glory, but with humility of mind regarding one another as more important than yourselves, not merely looking out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” But this is not a trivial humility. Christ was not only so humble as to not cling to His equality with God (v6), not only so humble as to empty Himself (v7), not only so humble that He took the very form of a bondslave (v7), not only so humble that He outwardly looked like the very people who had betrayed Him time and time again through the history of the world (v8), not only so humble as to be obedient (v8), not only so humble as to be obedient
to death (v8), no not even so humble as to only be obedient to the point of death on a cross like that of any other death on a cross, as humiliating as that may have been (v8). He was humble to the point of His death on His cross (v8). The perfect, spotless, holy, holy, holy Lamb of God was humble to the point of being treated like He was you, and like He was me. He bore our sin, though He was sinless (2 Corinthians 5:21). The God-man, having never even had a thought of vaguely questionable righteousness, the most morally perfect being to ever be, was treated as if He were the sole criminal by whom every act of evil was ever performed (Isaiah 53:4–5). This is a humility for which there is no comparison. This is a humility of qualification, not just quantification. He went from being the standard of goodness, unable to sin, to being treated as if He were the worst sinner to live, yes, if it is possible, worse even than Satan himself. Jesus stooped lower than the imagination can conceive, and never pridefully puffed Himself up as better than every creature to live, although He was and is. This surely must be the greatest humility, not to suffer because of sin, but to suffer in spite of righteousness (1 Peter 3:8–22). This is our application, that for every annoyance, for every slight, from the smallest of inconveniences to the most torturous of persecution, every time a family member does that thing that rubs you wrong, or you are mistreated, or even punished for being holy, we are called to be as humble as the Christ for whom our imitation accrues worldly punishment.

How Error Alters Application

Now that we have explored the breadth of Christological error, the depth of the biblical truth, and the daily application of that truth, now turn back to the errors we have seen and consider how the unorthodox view alters the application of the text. The error of Kenoticism in saying Jesus was just a man in right relationship with God leads to the idea that, and I summarize Kenneth Copeland here, any person in complete right relationship with God, could have died on the cross for the sins of all. “It’s vital to note that He did all His miracles as a man, not as God. If He did them as God, I would still be impressed. But because He did them as a man yielded to God, I am now unsatisfied with my life, being compelled to follow the example He has given us. Jesus is the only model for us to follow,” Bill Johnson, Claiming the Power to Heal As Jesus Did, Charisma Magazine, 2014. I think this is maybe the most egregious of infractions in regard to the application of Philippians 2, as it doesn’t not simply fall short of the biblical application, but is entirely antithetical to it. It is no longer that we are to share in the attitude of Christ, who in His humility did not consider His equality with God as something to cling to (Philippians 2:6). Instead now we are to insist on our own equality with Christ Himself, out of pride (Genesis 3:4–5).

Conclusion

This study has served as a great reminder to me of just how intimately doctrine, love, worship, and application are all connected. Further than serving as a reminder to me, study of this passage also serves as a harsh rebuke to those who deny such a connection. Not only does a close study of God’s word prove to us the relationship between orthodoxy (right beliefs) and orthopraxis (right practices), but a study of the misreadings of His word, in light of the biblical presentation, proves to us the necessity of precision. Examine such a change as trivial as taking the term 'emptied' literally instead of figuratively. While some may quibble that it’s “what it means to me,” or, “it’s who He is to me,” we have seen who Jesus according to man is, and that ‘jesus’ cannibalizes the text of scripture. In Kenoticism, Jesus is, by definition, only an example to be imitated, but not a God to be worshipped. Kenoticism has examined the unattainable nature of the atonement and instead of worshipping in awe it has declared such unattainability as the very indicator of Chalcedonian Christology’s impotence to accurately describe the natures of Jesus. Kenoticism would rather you be God, than be saved by Him, hence so many of today’s proponents of Kenoticism also promulgate the Little gods doctrine. How could a man who is not God Himself, endure the punishment of God for the sins of all in only a few short hours, when all of eternity is not enough for anybody to atone for their sins alone (Revelation 14:9–11)? How can we be saved by a Jesus divested of His deity, simply a man in right relationship with God, a godless Christ?

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